Last night, Monday, at about 5am, one of our calls was to Jazeera Hotel in Al Mina (the port area) which had been shelled by Israeli ships. When we first arrived it seemed there was no-one there, but eventually the medics retrieved the two caretakers from under the rubble. 50 year old Faieq Moshtaha had shrapnel injuries but was able to walk and was put into our accompanying ambulance, 33 year old Helmi Moshtaha had shrapnel inuries and a deep head wound and was stretchered into my ambulance.
I filmed the first bit of this but then had to stop to help staunch bleeding; they might post the footage up on the ISM website but it’s not the best quality. (My voiceover sounds like I’m stoned, but it honestly is just lack of sleep!) Living by the sea as I do, I know the shells are usually followed by another lot of shells five minutes later, and I was really thinking the medics were going to get hit before they got Faieq and Helmi out, but all was well. As I held a compress to Helmi’s head I noticed something strange. If you have a woodburning stove, like I do, you often burn yourself mildly, and the hairs on your hand go all crisp. All of the hair on Helmi’s head was like that.
Tonight, Tuesday, just before I came on shift, I caught a ride with S that turned unexpectedly into the pickup of the body of a resistance fighter. This was in fact the first time in all these days since I began riding with the ambulances, that I saw a fighter in my ambulance. Since it was just the two of us I helped to haul what was left of him – which didn’t involve a head or the top of his torso – onto the stretcher. I was glad of the darkness that blurred the details, though it also made me very aware that our every move in this apparently empty wasteland was probably being observed. Back at the hospital I discovered that in the basement there is a man who washes and dries any of your clothes that have got blood on, within an hour.
For the medics here, it seemed this episode meant I had crossed some sort of line that brought me a little closer to their own lives. Several asked me if I had been afraid, and I gave the answer I’ve given you, but with the increasing feeling that not to be afraid is meaningless when it’s probably just because you really don’t quite get what awful things can happen to you and your friends and family. I have started to answer apologetically, “I’m not afraid, but I’m sure I should be.” Later on into the night, medic E asks me more specifically what I had felt when seeing the shaheed resistance guy. I think about it for a while and say,
“I think my strongest feeling is that I am very sad that any of us can do this to each other. Any human to any other human, no matter what reason. And, I feel respect for the strength of someone who does this job.”
He begins to talk to me about his own feelings. He is 36, has been a medic for ten years. He has a wife and four children. He says he has never seen anything as bad as these days, in that time. And he says a lot of the time he is very frightened. Sometimes so frightened, if the area is dangerous, that he almost can’t bring himself to continue to drive towards the call-out location. He describes a call-out during the night that we had both been on (perhaps thinking I had observed this hesitation) saying that he first thought he couldn’t do it; he had to stop, talk himself through his fear, and then continue with the collection, expecting a rocket to blow him apart at any moment. It seems that with the drone surveillance technology, they really can send rockets with your name on.
Arafa was a good friend of his, he told me, and described phoning Arafa’s wife several times since his death. He tries to talk to her but she can’t stop crying.
His family worry about him very much; when he visits his parents his father begs him to take a different job. But this job is important to him and he knows someone must do it. He tells me that if he came across an injured Israeli he would treat him with the same care he would anyone.
I want to hear more, but at this point that, in true Palestinian style, some of the others start getting actually distressed about the fact that there is hot food next door and I am not there eating it. It isn’t good enough that I can come and have some later, or that some can be put aside for me; it doesn’t matter that this is an important conversation, I am A Guest And I Must Eat Now.
Tonight, we collect two men carrying a little girl of 13 months. She is still warm, but EB finds no pulse. If I understood correctly, she has had breathing difficulties since she was born, and in the rocket attack that just happened, her mother held her so tight she wasn’t able to get enough air. I ask to clarify this story several times because I want to think I’ve misunderstood.
At one point tonight I come out of the Disaster Management room and am confronted with a family of about 12 small children, 1 old women, and a couple of young women, all on a sofa and all looking at me with mute appeal. The effect is so overwhelming I have to retreat back into the Disaster room again. Ambulance convoys were allowed to come up from Rafah today, and it seems this family caught a ride; whether they’re here to return home or to stay with relatives because Rafah is under attack is unclear. Shortly after we load them all into an ambulance and drive them to their destination.
This appears to be a bit of town that our driver considers extremely dangerous. They have all started smiling, he is getting more and more stressed, and the fact that they are all shouting directions at him does not help. We manage to suppress all but one set of directions, and then tip out the family at their door, trying to do it all at top speed. Our driver screeches off, shouting in one-part jest and three-parts panic that we are crazy to be here at all, that look! there isn’t even a cat or dog on these streets, they have too much sense, that this is all a game to the Israelis, a computer game, that we and our ambulance are just blips on their computer screens, that they’ll destroy us just for fun.
In the light of dawn, we collect an old woman and a young man from a shelled building down near Gaza beach; I clean the young man’s head wound. A couple of times tonight, I’ve look round for the medic and realised I’m it.
By the way – it turns out the triplets (Abdullah, Mohammad, and Samih) are about 28 days old, and have been separated from their family ever since their birth. They needed hospital care at first, but now could go home – except their home is in Khan Younsis, which is cut off. Their poor mother is phoning every day. They are getting great care here, but an incubator is a poor replacement for a mother’s arms.