Still Breathing In Gaza
By Caoimhe Butterly
16 January, 2009
The morgues of Gaza's hospitals are overflowing. The bodies in their blood-soaked white shrouds cover the entire floor space of the al-Shifa hospital morgue. Some are intact, most horribly deformed, limbs twisted into unnatural positions, chest cavities exposed, heads blown off, skulls crushed in. Family members wait outside to identify and claim a brother, husband, father, mother, wife, child. Many of those who wait their turn have lost numerous family members and loved ones.
Blood is everywhere. Hospital orderlies hose down the floors of operating rooms, bloodied bandages lie discarded in corners, and the injured continue to pour in: bodies lacerated by shrapnel, burns, bullet wounds. Medical workers, exhausted and under siege, work day and night and each life saved is seen as a victory over the predominance of death.
The streets of Gaza are eerily silent -- the pulsing life and rhythm of markets, children, fishermen walking down to the sea at dawn brutally stilled and replaced by an atmosphere of uncertainty, isolation and fear. The ever-present sounds of surveillance drones, F-16s, tanks and Apache helicopters are listened to acutely as residents try to guess where the next deadly strike will be -- which house, school, clinic, mosque, governmental building or community center will be hit next and how to move before it does. That there are no safe places -- no refuge for vulnerable human bodies -- is felt drastically. It is a devastating awareness for parents -- that there is no way to keep their children safe.
As we continue to accompany the ambulances, joining Palestinian paramedics as they risk their lives, daily, to respond to calls from those with no other life-line, our existence becomes temporarily narrowed down and focused on the few precious minutes that make the difference between life and death. With each new call received as we ride in ambulances that careen down broken, silent roads, sirens and lights blaring, there exists a battle of life over death. We have learned the language of the war that the Israelis are waging on the collective captive population of Gaza -- to distinguish between the sounds of the weaponry used, the timing between the first missile strikes and the inevitable second -- targeting those that rush to tend to and evacuate the wounded, to recognize the signs of the different chemical weapons being used in this onslaught, to overcome the initial vulnerability of recognizing our own mortality.
Though many of the calls received are to pick up bodies, not the wounded, the necessity of affording the dead a dignified burial drives the paramedics to face the deliberate targeting of their colleagues and comrades -- 13 killed while evacuating the wounded, fourteen ambulances destroyed -- and to continue to search for the shattered bodies of the dead to bring home to their families.
Last night, while sitting with paramedics in Jabaliya refugee camp, drinking tea and listening to their stories, we received a call to respond to the aftermath of a missile strike. When we arrived at the outskirts of the camp where the attack had taken place, the area was filled with clouds of dust, torn electricity lines, slabs of concrete and open water pipes gushing water into the street. Amongst the carnage of severed limbs and blood we pulled out the body of a young man, his chest and face lacerated by shrapnel wounds, but alive, conscious and moaning.
As the ambulance sped him through the cold night we applied pressure to his wounds, the warmth of his blood seeping through the bandages reminder of the life still in him. He opened his eyes in answer to my questions and closed them again as Muhammad, a volunteer paramedic, murmured "ayeesh, nufuss" (live, breathe) over and over to him. He lost consciousness as we arrived at the hospital, received by the arms of friends who carried him into the emergency room. He, Majid, lived and is recovering.
A few minutes later there was another missile strike, this time on a residential house. As we arrived a crowd had rushed to the ruins of the four-story home in an attempt to drag survivors out from under the rubble. The family the house belonged to had evacuated the area the day before and the only person in it at the time of the strike was 17-year-old Muhammad who had gone back to collect clothes for his family. He was dragged out from under the rubble still breathing -- his legs twisted in unnatural directions and with a head wound, but alive. There was no choice but to move him, with the imminence of a possible second strike, and he lay in the ambulance moaning with pain and calling for his mother. We thought he would live, he was conscious though in intense pain and with the rest of the night consumed with call after call to pick up the wounded and the dead, I forgot to check on him. This morning we were called to pick up a body from al-Shifa hospital to take back to Jabaliya. We carried a body wrapped in a blood-soaked white shroud into the ambulance, and it wasn't until we were on the road that we realized that it was Muhammad's body. His brother rode with us, opening the shroud to tenderly kiss Muhammad's forehead.
This morning we received news that al-Quds hospital in Gaza City was under siege. We tried unsuccessfully for hours to gain access to the hospital, trying to organize co-ordination to get the ambulances past Israeli tanks and snipers to evacuate the wounded and dead. Hours of unsuccessful attempts later we received a call from the Shejaiya neighborhood, describing a house where there were both dead and wounded patients to pick up. The area was deserted, many families having fled as Israeli tanks and snipers took up position amongst their homes, other silent in the dark, cold confines of their homes, crawling from room to room to avoid sniper fire through their windows.
As we drove slowly around the area, we heard women's cries for help. We approached their house on foot, followed by the ambulances and as we came to the threshold of their home, they rushed towards us with their children, shaking and crying with shock. At the door of the house the ambulance lights exposed the bodies of four men, lacerated by shrapnel wounds -- the skull and brains of one exposed, others whose limbs had been severed off. The four were the husbands and brothers of the women, who had ventured out to search for bread and food for their families. Their bodies were still warm as we struggled to carry them on stretchers over the uneven ground, their blood staining the earth and our clothes. As we prepared to leave the area our torches illuminated the slumped figure of another man, his abdomen and chest shredded by shrapnel. With no space in the other ambulances, and the imminent possibility of sniper fire, we were forced to take his body in the back of the ambulance carrying the women and children. One of the little girls stared at me before coming into my arms and telling me her name, Fidaa, which means to sacrifice. She stared at the body bag, asking when he would wake up.
Once back at the hospital we received word that the Israeli army had shelled al-Quds hospital, that the ensuing fire risked spreading and that there had been a 20-minute timeframe negotiated to evacuate patients, doctors and residents in the surrounding houses. By the time we got up there in a convoy of ambulances, hundreds of people had gathered. With the shelling of the headquarters of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees and the hospital there was a profound awareness that nowhere in Gaza is safe, or sacred.
We helped evacuate those assembled to nearby hospitals and schools that have been opened to receive the displaced. The scenes were deeply saddening -- families, desperate and carrying their children, blankets and bags of their possessions venturing out in the cold night to try to find a corner of a school or hospital to shelter in. The paramedic we were with referred to the displacement of the more than 46,000 Palestinians now on the move as a continuation of the ongoing Nakba of dispossession and exile seen through generation after generation enduring massacre after massacre.
Today's death toll was over 75, one of the bloodiest days since the start of this carnage. At least 1,110 Palestinians have been killed in the past 21 days; 367 of those have been children. The humanitarian infrastructure of Gaza is on its knees, already devastated by years of comprehensive siege. There has been a deliberate, systematic destruction of all places of refuge. There are no safe places here, for anyone.
And yet, in the face of so much desecration, this community has remained intact. The social solidarity and support between people is inspiring, and the steadfastness of Gaza continues to humble and inspire all those who witness it. Their level of sacrifice demands our collective response and recognition that demonstrations are not enough. Gaza, Palestine and its people continue to live, breathe, resist and remain intact and this refusal to be broken is a call and challenge to us all.
Caoimhe Butterly is an Irish human rights activist working in Jabaliya and Gaza City as a volunteer with ambulance services and as co-coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement, She can be contacted on 00972-598273960 or at sahara78 AT hotmail DOT co DOT uk.