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A Gaza influencer who posted feel-good videos is now processing losing his family

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Gaza, young social media activists have attracted huge audiences posting images of what it is like to live under war. One of those Instagram personalities spent years building his following with feel-good videos about life in Gaza until his darkest hour came at a moment of celebration in Israel. NPR's Daniel Estrin and our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, bring us his story. And we'll note it contains graphic descriptions of casualties.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Gaza's Mr. Congeniality is a guy who goes by the nickname Kazanova.

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IBRAHIM HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He is 30-year-old Ibrahim Hassouna. I've followed him on Instagram for years, and I recognized him at a cafe a few years ago on a reporting trip to Gaza. At the time, he worked with restaurants and businesses promoting their brands. His videos were all smiles and laughter.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He told me he wanted his videos to help people overcome the difficulties of life in Gaza...

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MAAN RABAA: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: ...Like this Instagram video. You see him riding in the passenger seat with his sunroof open, holding a bouquet of flowers and blasting a song.

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RABAA: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: The next video he posted was him on the couch at home, saying...

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HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: "I clean the bathroom and do the dishes." And in the background, his mom goes, liar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken, laughter).

ESTRIN: Those two videos were from October 6, 2023. The next day, Hamas attacked Israel, then Israel attacked Gaza, and Kazanova's world was forever changed. NPR's producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, met him last week.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Kazanova says, "I tend to spread positive energy, but when the war started, there was no positive energy." He, his mom and dad, his brother, his sister-in-law and his two twin nieces fled Gaza City and fled again and again as Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets instructing Palestinians to evacuate farther and farther south for their own safety. He still tried to cheer up his family and his followers on Instagram.

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HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: He posted this video making a falafel sandwich with his little nieces Susan and Sedra. They didn't have any toys, but they'd play together with a pot lid and an empty jar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: In this video, he puts his arm around his mom on a walk to the market in the city of Rafah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says, "we're here for a change of atmosphere." They buy two cauliflowers in the market and smile as they hitch a ride on a horse-drawn cart back to where they're sheltering. But all that was the Instagram version of the day. Off-camera...

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: ...He 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 said she didn't feel like going out to the market anymore. Then last weekend his mom bought four chickens, but he went to sleep at a friend's house, so she promised to wait for him for their first chicken meal in months.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBS EXPLODING)

ESTRIN: Past midnight, there were massive Israeli strikes in Rafah. Our producer documented them, and Kazanova rushed back to where his family was sleeping.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says he found the world turned upside down. The home had been hit. The details he gave us are graphic. He went through body bags.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: One body was without a head, but he recognized his dad's finger. He looked in the second bag and saw one side of his mother's face, the side he would see sleeping near her every night where they were sheltering. Another bag had pieces of his brother. He spent hours collecting the remains of his family.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Little Sedra he identified from the earring in one ear.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Little Susan he identified by the small purse she always slept with. The Israeli strikes that had killed his family were part of an Israeli special forces operation. Two Israeli hostages, 61 and 70 years old, captured by Hamas on October 7, were freed. The military says it unleashed massive airstrikes as a diversion to provide the special ops forces with cover. The operation was celebrated in Israel as a rare win, a ray of light with so many other hostages still held in Gaza.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Kazanova considers the Israeli perspective. He says, "you wanted to retrieve two elderly prisoners. It's their right. Aren't they humans? They're humans. And 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." Kazanova considers the big picture - the attack from Gaza on Israel October 7 and Israel's response - and says on both sides, there were many things that could have been handled more appropriately. His voice quivers.

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says, "now I'm by myself. There's no one. I'm speaking to you from a cemetery. I can't even smell my mother's smell, hear my father's voice, check up on my brother, play with the younger ones. A nightmare you can wake up from. But this you can't wake up from. Why should I live my life without a family?"

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Our producer Anas Baba asks him, "you used to share the beauty in besieged Gaza. Does the concept of beauty still exist for you?"

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Kazanova says, "the darkness will be in my heart, not on the outside. I'll continue to spread happiness, goodness and hope." He says it's something his mother taught him. He has the phrase my mom tattooed in Arabic on his wrist.

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HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: A few days ago, Kazanova posted this video of him distributing water to displaced children in Gaza. The caption on Instagram said, honoring the soul of my family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

HASSOUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Daniel Estrin, NPR News, with reporting from Anas Baba in Rafah, Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCONUT RECORDS AND WOODY JACKSON'S "DAKOTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.