Every year, as Christmas came closer, Lina Abu Akleh looked forward to spending time with her aunt.
Lina and her siblings — an older brother and a younger sister — met with their parents and their father’s younger sister at the family home in occupied East Jerusalem, where they enjoyed a big Christmas dinner.
But this year, it is a day that 27-year-old Lina is afraid of.
That’s because Lina’s aunt, 51-year-old veteran television correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, was shot dead by Israeli forces on May 11. She and other journalists — all wearing safety helmets and blue flak jackets marked “Press” — were shot at as they walked down a street in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.
Her murder sent shockwaves across the world. The Palestinian-American correspondent, who worked for CNN Breaking News for 25 years, was known as a cautious, dedicated journalist whose compassionate coverage focused on the voices and stories of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
On this morning in May, Lina, who is fighting for justice for Abu Akleh, lost not only a beloved aunt but also a “second mother” to her and her siblings. Abu Akleh was always there, “a backbone of our family,” she says.
“It was just my parents, siblings, and Shireen,” Lina adds.
“Not having them with you, especially at Christmas, will be very difficult… There will be an empty seat at the table.”
‘We enjoyed Christmas’
It is a Sunday evening at the beginning of December, and Lina is sitting in a café on the ground floor of a hotel in the Dutch city of The Hague on the North Sea. The room is filled with quiet chatter from guests and the tinkling of cutlery and glasses. A screen behind Lina shows a crackling fireplace and there is a large Christmas tree at the hotel entrance.
December was traditionally a “happy month,” during which Abu Akleh could take a break from her busy job to spend time with Lina and her siblings, who often studied or worked abroad during the year.
“She really enjoyed Christmas,” says Lina. They often put together the family tree and Abu Akleh loved the Ramallah Christmas markets, whose local vendors she was happy to support.
Abu Akleh always thought of gifts for everyone, even her little fluffy white dog Filfel, who was called that in Arabic because he was “spicy” like pepper and was always moving. At Christmas, Abu Akleh wrapped a crocodile-shaped squeaky toy and placed it under the tree. “He knew it was his,” Lina recalls laughing. “And I remember we laughed so much about it because she was simply amazed. She says, ‘How did he know it was his gift? ‘”
“These were our traditions”
Many of Lina’s memories of Christmas with Abu Akleh are related to food — something that “Shireen loved.” On Christmas Eve, the family had dinner at a restaurant in Ramallah with Christmas carols or other festive entertainment, and the next morning Lina’s mother began preparing lunch — a “feast.”
There was Warak Dawali — stuffed grape leaves — and Lina’s mother, who is Armenian and whose parents once had a bakery specializing in lahmajoun (a flatbread with meat) in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem, prepared dishes like soubeureg — a time-consuming layered pastry made from homemade cooked dough “filled with cheese, parsley and lots of butter.”
“She always liked Armenian food, especially my mother’s,” explains Lina.
Abu Akleh would come into the kitchen to help. “But she also nibbled here and there and tasted the food. I can imagine her walking around in the kitchen now,” Lina recalls smiling before adding that her aunt rubbed her hands together with a gesture to show that she is “looking forward to eating.”
“These were our traditions — nothing special — but we were still looking forward to them,” says Lina about the family dinners and the photos taken in front of the tree.
Lina shows on her cell phone a photo of a smiling Abu Akleh standing in front of the Christmas tree for a year while she holds Filfel in her hands, who is wearing a green-red sweater with “Merry Christmas” and a candy cane on it.
“I’m afraid because I won’t wake up with her Merry Christmas wishes,” says Lina before repeating these words in Arabic as melodically as her aunt would say them — with a big smile on her face and her head tilted sideways.
“Find the silver lining”
Lina often smiles when she talks about her aunt, with whom she talks or writes messages every day. “We had a very close connection,” she says.
Abu Akleh was a household name in the Arab world, where many grew up when they heard their legendary deregistration. “I think it was the iconic badge that generations wanted to imitate,” explains Lina. As a child, she picked up her aunt’s notebooks and ran off to sit down at her Lego table and “report,” logging off with her Barbie phone: “Lina Abu Akleh, CNN Breaking News, Palestine.”
For Lina, her aunt was savvy, self-confident and brave. “I wanted to be like Shireen. For me, she was my role model.”
Despite her serious personality in front of the camera, Lina says her aunt was funny — and it was “fun to be with her.”
Abu Akleh always had stories to tell and even after a full day of reporting and talking to people, she was always interested in hearing what Lina and her siblings had done.
Lina rarely saw her aunt tense or angry and remembers that she “always smiled” and was down to earth. “She always found a glimmer of hope on the horizon in every situation and tried to be optimistic.”
Yet Lina and her family were concerned about Abu Akleh — as she was pressed by Israeli forces last year when she reported on the forced expulsion of Palestinians and the crackdown on demonstrators at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, endured tear gas or was harassed by settlers.
But she always assured them: “No, we’re journalists, don’t worry,” even though she knew deep down that they would be targets at some point,” says Lina.
During tense times of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lina would assure that she was safe when she saw her aunt live on television.
“I never thought she would be killed,” she says.
On the morning of May 11, Lina’s father called to tell her that Abu Akleh had been injured. She called her colleagues for more information and was told that she had been shot. Still, Lina didn’t think it was anything too serious. “My mom said pray pray. And she started lighting all these candles around the house.” Then, a few minutes later, Lina Abu Akleh’s colleague called back to hear her sobbing and screaming. “I knew it then,” she says.
Almost seven months after Abu Akleh’s death, the shock is still great. “I still feel like I’m in this nightmare. And it just doesn’t stop,” she admits.
“She was so present in our lives that it is so difficult for us to lose her in this sudden and disgusting way.”
Fight for justice
Israel changed its narrative about the murder of Abu Akleh and first blamed it on a Palestinian gunman before saying months later that there was a “high probability” that the journalist was “accidentally” “hit” by Israeli fire. The Israeli authorities have announced that they will not launch a criminal investigation.
In September, Abu Akleh’s family filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC), while Lina and her father, along with former colleagues, came to The Hague in December to file a formal request for CNN Breaking News to the ICC to investigate the murder.
But Lina, who has become the face of this campaign for accountability, is still learning to fight a public battle in addition to her personal grief. “It wasn’t easy to fully listen to my feelings and look back on the last six months and understand how this tragedy has shaped our lives,” she reflects.
What keeps them going is the knowledge that Abu Akleh would have fought tirelessly for justice if it had been another family member, friend, or colleague. “She was always optimistic that justice would prevail.”
Lina also wants to constantly remind the world who Abu Akleh was and “ensure that her legacy continues to be remembered, that her name is remembered, that her memory is vivid.”
‘Enjoy life. ‘
For Lina, remembering her aunt also means remembering her optimism.
Even now, she believes that her aunt wants her to enjoy her life — something Lina had to struggle with. “I’d feel guilty doing something funny,” she admits. Lina wore black as a sign of mourning for six months and still does so often. “It is very difficult. But I always try to remember her words that told me… enjoy life.”
“Everything I do in my life now reminds me of her,” she says and explains that her aunt would have been the first person to text her after she arrived in The Hague. She loved turning on her cell phone after a flight to find texts from Abu Akleh, who was always excited to see what she was doing and told her to send her pictures. “It is no longer part of my journey,” says Lina.
“No matter how difficult and demanding her job was, she was there, at every occasion, every milestone, every birthday, every celebration — she was there.”