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Testimony from Gaza

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Dr. Raed Haj Yahiya is a WAS-NS member. Edo is a photographer currently living in the village. Both spent several days in Gaza during the recent war. Together they presented an evening of photos and testimony. An attempt has been made to capture the essentials of their informal presentation, while imposing a structure more suitable for reading. Inaccuracies may be those of the writer.

Edo’s testimony

I’m a photographer - I decided to go to Gaza because of a personal relationship with the place. It was important to me. I have brought some photos - It’s difficult to organize them. Most of what comes out of Gaza are reactions to what you find in front of you. It is hard to set a limit on what you show, in terms of death. I found it very strange to photograph dead people because first of all there are so many chances to see this. But I find death quite an intimate thing...

It is not my point in Gaza to tell what is going on. The situation there was terrible before the war and now it is worse than terrible. Everything you can imagine is bad there.

Entering Gaza

There in the Erez terminal building at the entry to Gaza, you don’t see Israelis. They observe from above, but you don’t meet them. The only staff you come into contact with at the terminal are from Gaza. But suddenly while we were crossing through we saw two Palestinian teenagers. One was barefoot and shaking. He said he had just been released after five days of interrogation. He had been blindfolded and handcuffed. They had just let him go. If you think of international conventions, it is required to release people to a safe place. I invited him to ride with us on the bus, and he got off at Tufah, which itself is a ghost town now.

From the Erez terminal There is a bus that provides safe passage down to Gaza City. On the way, going through Bayt Lahiya, and along the way, most of the houses are in ruins. The road itself has been almost destroyed. It’s scary because there are still lots of unexploded bombs.

Staying in Gaza

The area where I stayed was comparatively safe. Yet even there, one night, we received a warning of a possible attack, so many families fled. All the time there are drones in the skies. There is the very strange fear that at any moment something can fall on your head. It was scary to cross the street even in daylight, but in the evening, after 6 o’clock, no one dares to venture outside. On many occasions people traveling in cars were targeted.

It was very unusual to see people eating at cafes or restaurants. Normal life returned a little during a ceasefire. Then it was like a holiday. It felt like Eid. But then, during the ceasefire, the bombing started again.

Around Gaza

A third of the population is displaced. Even in a wealthy country, that would be difficult. Imagine if this would happen in a country like Switzerland... But the situation in Gaza makes it really complicated. Among the displaced, UNRWA schools shelter about 250,000, with a similar number in other places. At the schools, women and children sleep in the classrooms. The men sleep outside. It’s already a month that people are in this situation. They are living from tuna and a little bread. In many cases they have no money at all for extra food.

We visited Jabalya refugee camp, in the north of the Strip. We visited a cemetery. As you know, cemeteries too were bombed. One day they needed to bury 30 people. It was dangerous work, being in an open area, so funerals were conducted in minutes.

We saw the Greek Orthodox Church that was opened for people displaced from Shujaya. In some cases people at the church receive a portion of warm food.

There is a serious problem not just with food, but with water. Tap water in Gaza is usually salty, so for cooking or drinking, families need to buy the water. Normally they buy it from a truck, but now there are long lines, and people depend upon donations, even for water.

I visited the hospital in Rafah after it was bombed two weeks ago. Most of the doctors appeared to be in shock, from constantly seeing people arrive in pieces. The majority of the victims are children and women. The main hospital in Rafah had to be evacuated. Many of the doctors are really broken. There is nowhere to store the bodies. They use places such as coolers for flowers, meat or vegetables. People go there to pick up the bodies before burial.

General conditions

There is a breakdown in normal social relationships. There were cases of looting and robbery. Some people attempt to guard the rubble that was their houses. Among the rubble, many bodies remain trapped, so the smell is very heavy. There are also unexploded bombs. These are everywhere, among the rubble and in houses. In one case, six people, including a foreign journalist, were killed by one of these unexploded bombs. People are worried about the health situation. It looks as if living in such conditions means we are on the edge of another tragedy, such as an epidemic. There will certainly be no short term solution to the problems of Gaza.

Many told me they are not interested in a ceasefire because anyway life is unlivable. Even before the war, 70% of the population needed assistance, and for 18 hours a day there was no power. At the end of June it was necessary to close the beaches because the lack of electricity meant that there was no way to treat sewage, and this was flowing directly into the sea.

People don’t see any way of changing things except through war. They believe that at least this will cause people outside to notice what’s happening.

Raed’s testimony

I first volunteered in Gaza in the war of 2007. Since then, about every four months, I’ve been going with three or four doctors from Physicians for Human Rights. But the conditions this time were worse than I have previously found in Gaza or even on visits to Africa. There is no correlation between what we see on TV - even foreign channels - and what you experience on going there. From the moment you enter from the terminal at Erez, you are greeted by the smell [of death]. The war didn’t just affect built up areas. Even the crops in the fields were destroyed, so that one of the most expensive items you can buy in Gaza today are tomatoes. But I will focus on the health situation.

The hospitals

I spent several days in Gaza visiting and volunteering in hospitals. Among the 15 hospitals in Gaza, twelve have been bombed. Eight were bombed out completely.

The three biggest hospitals cover a large area, with main buildings and annexes. Shifa hospital, which I visited, is in a comparatively safe area, though some of the outpatient clinics were bombed. Shifa has about 600 beds and these were all occupied by the injured. Conditions there are chaotic. The emergency room has 20 beds. But the number of injured arriving was sometimes ten times greater. There is no time, and not enough equipment or staff, so that when hospitals receive seriously injured people, often all they can do is stitch them up and discharge them. When corpses arrive, it is often impossible to identify them. They sometimes arrive incomplete or in pieces. It becomes necessary to rely on the testimony of the family that accompanies them. One night, 50 bodies were brought in. The ambulances that transport the injured are themselves subject to attack. Nineteen ambulance staffs were killed. The ambulances themselves largely lack equipment.

The hospitals rely on generators because electricity is so sporadic. Normally the hospitals can rely on about 6 hours of electricity a day, but when we were there this time they received only about two hours’ supply. The equipment they use is damaged and old. Even tools for performing sutures are rusty. Part of the problem is the salty water they use for cleaning. The hospitals receive many donations of equipment but then have no means to fix the equipment, so it becomes unusable.

The doctors

After three wars, the doctors are used to working in very trying conditions, but still it is hard for them. They work for 48 hours continuously then rest for 24 hours. After working hard for 48 hours they can hardly stand on their feet. But many remain in the hospital even when then, because they don’t have the means to go anywhere. Most of the doctors have not received salaries for 7 months, so they are penniless. The blockade on Gaza means that doctors are unable to get out to learn anything new, so they have to rely on whatever they learned in medical school.

The patients

In the hospitals you see a disproportionate amount of women and children. Among the men, you see only civilians. Perhaps the armed people use another hospital. I saw one family where almost everyone was injured, including a 102 year old woman - I felt very sad to see this. And there was a three year old child came with fragmentation /shrapnel injuries.

The wounds you find among the injured are very strange. It appears that some of these are chemical burns, and in other cases caused by very sharp fragmentation or shrapnel. The army appears to be using using missiles that explode in the air, for maximum injury.

Health conditions

There is widespread dysentery and skin disease among the population. About 80% of the children suffer from bed wetting. Some 10,000 people have been injured. It is hard to imagine such a number, and among the injured there are 3,200 children. Many of the wounded suffer from infection, so limbs need to be amputated. There are hardly any rehabilitation facilities in Gaza, and this means that the seriously injured lose their livelihood. Mental health facilities too are almost non-existent, meaning that many people never recover from trauma.

The Schools

I visited a small government school. In government schools, the situation is much worse than in the UNRWA schools. In every room there are seven families who need to cook and do everything else there. They live on spaghetti and tomato paste. The school I visited held 700 people, and there was no water to drink. They depend on donations of water. The women and children set up camp inside and the men sleep outside. Under these tight living conditions, there is inevitable friction.

General situation

About two thousand people have been killed, among which there are about 430 children. And this is the first war in which about 70 families were almost totally wiped out. One hundred and sixty mosques were damaged - almost 70 were completely destroyed. In Shujaya I hardly saw a house that was not damaged. About 180 factories, many of which produced food, were destroyed. This also means that unemployment - which previously stood at about 40% - will surely rise.

Despite the attempt to maintain order, the situation in the streets is chaotic. When I pulled out a 100 shekel bill to give to someone, there was such a disturbance I almost had to be rescued by the police.

The worst thing is the continuing blockade which prevents a return to normal life or a healing of trauma. Every day 100 trucks with water enter, and many donations, but this is no where near enough.

Expression of feelings

People don’t talk about their personal tragedies. They have lost everything. Most were not able to rescue anything from their houses. Even before the war 70% of the population required welfare. Now the situation is such that no assistance could help. People in Gaza don’t see any future. Nobody worries themselves about whether Hamas or some other party would be better - not even communists. We will have to wait a generation or two before people recover from their trauma.


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