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A Gaza influencer built a following with feel-good videos. Now he mourns his family

Ibrahim Hassouna, 30, a Gaza social media influencer known as Kazanova, has the phrase "my mom" tattooed on his wrist in Arabic. Most of his family was killed in a Feb. 12 Israeli military operation to rescue hostages.
Anas Baba
/
NPR
Ibrahim Hassouna, 30, a Gaza social media influencer known as Kazanova, has the phrase "my mom" tattooed on his wrist in Arabic. Most of his family was killed in a Feb. 12 Israeli military operation to rescue hostages.

This story contains descriptions of graphic violence.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — You could call him Gaza's Mr. Congeniality.

Social media influencer Ibrahim Hassouna, 30 — who goes by the nickname Kazanova — spent years building his Instagram audience of 440,000 followers by posting feel-good videos about his life in the Gaza Strip. Some would feature his mom.

"I tend to spread positive energy," Hassouna says. "But when the war started, there was no positive energy."

His darkest hour came on Feb. 12.

The Israeli military unleashed heavy bombings to provide cover for commandos during a successful hostage rescue mission. At least 74 Palestinians were killed in that bombing campaign, according to Gaza health officials.

Hassouna's mother, father, brother, sister-in-law and young nieces and nephew were among them. They were killed as they slept in the home where they were sheltering. It was the one night Hassouna happened to sleep over at a friend's house.

"Now I am by myself," he says. "Why should I live my life without a family?"

Cheering up his family and followers

In Gaza, young social media activists have attracted huge audiences worldwide, posting images of what it's like to live under war.

Before the war, Hassouna worked as a promoter for restaurants and businesses, emceeing their events and posting videos on Instagram of daily life in Gaza.

His videos were all smiles and laughter.

One video he posted shows him on a joyride through Gaza City, in the passenger seat of a spacious car, with the sunroof open, holding a bouquet of flowers and blasting a song.

The next video he posted is a selfie on the couch at home: "I clean the bathroom, and do the dishes," he begins.

"Liar," his mom, Suzan, says in the background. He laughs.

Those two videos were from Oct. 6, 2023.

The next day, Hamas attacked Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostage, according to Israeli figures. Israel began bombing Gaza, killing, to date, more than 29,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials.

Hassouna and his family fled their home in Gaza City, then fled again and again, as Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets instructing Palestinians to evacuate farther and farther south for their own safety.

He couldn't resist posting images from the sites of Israeli bombings, but his mom wanted him to stay away from danger. He tried to cheer up his family and his followers on Instagram.

He posted a video of himself making a falafel sandwich for a group of kids sitting in a circle on the floor, including his young nieces, twins Suzan and Sedra, whom he adored.

"There were no toys to play with," he says. "I played with them using a pot lid, an empty jar."

In another video, he puts his arm around his mom as he takes her on a walk to the market.

"We're here for a change of atmosphere," he says to the camera. They buy two cauliflowers and smile as they hitch a ride on a horse-drawn cart back to the home where they're sheltering.

But that was only the Instagram version of the day.

Off-camera, Hassouna says, it was hard to enjoy the cauliflower meal. The wartime price of two cauliflowers was as much as what an entire meal used to cost. His mom was deflated.

"That day," says Hassouna, "She said, 'I won't go down to the market anymore.'"

The hostage rescue mission

On Feb. 11, his mom texted him: "Come eat chicken." She'd managed to buy four of them.

"A significant achievement," Hassouna says, in an overcrowded city where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians were clamoring for the same limited supplies.

He'd decided to sleep at a friend's house that night. So she promised to wait till the next day before preparing the family's first chicken meal since the war began.

"She wanted to sit and gather the family, and for us to be happy," he says.

At 1:49 a.m. on Feb. 12, Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a televised statement, Israeli commandos stormed an apartment in Rafah, safely rescuing two hostages — Fernando Simon Marman, 61, and Luis Har, 70 — after 129 days in Hamas captivity.

At 1:50 a.m., the military carried out a massive round of airstrikes in Rafah as a diversion, to provide cover to the forces as they escaped with the hostages, military officials say.

When he heard the news of the bombings, Hassouna rushed back to where his family had been sheltering.

"The world turned upside down," he says.

Collecting the shreds of his family

Palestinians inspect their destroyed homes after an Israeli air strike killed more than 60 people in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 12.
/ Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post via Getty Images
/
Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Palestinians inspect their destroyed homes after an Israeli air strike killed more than 60 people in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 12.

The details are graphic.

He went through body bags. One body was without a head. He recognized his dad's finger.

He looked in the second bag, and saw one side of his mother's face. It was the side he would see sleeping near her every night where they were sheltering.

Another bag had pieces of his brother.

He identified his little niece Sedra from an earring in one ear. He identified little Suzan by a small purse she always slept with.

He spent hours at the site of the strike, collecting his family's remains.

Lives destroyed

The operation was celebrated in Israel as a rare win, with more than 100 hostages still believed to be held in Gaza after more than four months of war.

Hassouna considers the Israeli perspective.

"You wanted to retrieve two elderly prisoners, it's their right. Aren't they humans? They're humans," Hassouna says. "A child is also a human. Just as you want to recognize the rights of the human whose life you want to save, you destroyed the lives of many people who had nothing to do with the whole war."

On the day of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, he reposted a social media video of Palestinian militants driving through an Israeli city, celebrating it.

In hindsight, he criticizes both Hamas' attack and Israel's response.

"There were many things that could have been handled more appropriately," he says.

What his mother taught him

Ibrahim Hassouna, known by his nickname Kazanova, stands in the graveyard in Rafah, Gaza, where he buried his parents, brother and other family members killed Feb. 12 by Israeli airstrikes.
Anas Baba / NPR
/
NPR
Ibrahim Hassouna, known by his nickname Kazanova, stands in the graveyard in Rafah, Gaza, where he buried his parents, brother and other family members killed Feb. 12 by Israeli airstrikes.

On a recent rainy day, Hassouna sat among the graves of his family in Rafah.

"I can't even smell my mother's smell, hear my father's voice, check up on my brother, play with the younger ones," he says. "A nightmare, you can wake up from, but this, you can't."

Recently, he filmed himself distributing drinking water to displaced children in Gaza, to honor the memory of his family.

"The darkness will be in my heart, not on the outside. I will continue to spread happiness, goodness and hope," he says. "A person relies on one's inner strength, the innate positive energy that they have."

It's something he says he learned from his mom. The phrase "my mom" is tattooed in Arabic on his wrist.

As he stands in the graveyard, a rainbow stretches across the sky.

Anas Baba reported from Rafah. Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv. Jawad Rizkallah contributed to this story from Beirut.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.