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Working with Red Cross evacuation team in Gaza

By Sharon in Gaza

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So, Thursday.. the Red Cross co-ordinated evacuation into Zaytoun. Doctor Said would look good on a Red Cross poster – black sweater, shaved head, muscles enough to keep that Red Cross flag held above his head for the two hours we were behind army lines. You’d definitely invite him in for coffee to ask for his opinion on the state of the world.

His colleague has more of an accountant look about him, but his job is to keep us alive – he is armed with a walkie-talkie and is negotiating our path constantly with the army as we move. With May, a small, quick woman who is the Engineer for the Red Crescent, supervising all the vehicles etc, I carry a stretcher and water. About 8 intrepid Red Crescent paramedics join us, wearing weighty bullet proof vests or not, dependent on their preference for possible death or certain backache.

What startles me first of all is how close the IOF have come. I have heard that they are 2km from the hospital but I guess I didn’t quite absorb that; when we all jump in the ambulances to drive there, we jump out again almost immediately. The Israeli Occupation Force is pretty much just round the corner. I haven’t seen them in person since 2005. They ain’t changed much.

Just as I occasionally forget that the planes in the sky are killing machines and assume for a moment they’re just jetting folks off on climate damaging holidays, my brain firstly registers the sound of tanks as some sort of roadworks nearby. Which they are in a way, they are unmaking the road. As-Saladiin is the main north-south road and they’re doing their best to turn it impassible, with earth mounds and barriers and blockades made of bombed cars. Soldiers point guns at us from behind the earth mounds. Snipers cover us from occupied houses. We all hope Mr Walkie Talkie is saying the right things.

He’s very polite, and isn’t in fact saying any of the things I would be saying if I was on the phone to the IOF right now. I guess that’s why he has his job and I don’t.

Walking past all these weapons is the point where anyone would reasonably get scared; for some reason (I discovered this on my first West Bank trip years ago) this doesn’t happen to me. There’s clearly a bit of wiring in my head connected wrong, and I think people who are scared and do stuff anyway are much braver than I am. And as you already know from my blog I do get scared sometimes, now (stupidly one might say) just isn’t one of those times.

Maybe it’s when I’ve got work to do that it’s ok. What I feel in walking this road with these good people is calm, and focused, and glad to be here. As my friends know to their sorrow, what I don’t cope with is supermarkets and four-by-fours and plastic. Even more, I don’t cope with the dissonance of trying to live in a Western society that pretends this reality, the reality of this road I am walking at this moment, does not exist. In the UK, in front of me is McDonalds, in my head are the tanks. It almost sends me crazy sometimes.

So here, the dissonance is finally gone, and the relief is great. So yes, I acknowledge I have a personal agenda. We all do.

When I was a kid, I was very aware of war zones, but I always understood they happened in places different from my home. I would like to tell you about what I am seeing right now as I walk. I am seeing flowering vines. Bright curtains in windows. Chickens running about. This is your home, you know. This is the garden where your children play. This is your house with obscene holes blown in it, with Israeli snipers lurking in the shadows of its roof, with a dead resistance fighter sitting with his back to your wall.

“Red Cross! It’s safe to come out! We can evacuate you!” everyone shouts up at the silent windows of the next house, the one after, the one after that. And eventually a lone elderly man appears from a house holding a white flag. And the a whole collection of faces behind a gate, hands reaching for our bottles of water. A dead teenage boy has been placed outside the gate. “My son,” says a man simply to us, in English. We ask them to wait there and continue. After an hour and a half, we have collected about 80 people, at least half children and many elderly. For each turn off the path we make to shout at damaged houses, permission must be asked and granted. And yes, I did the RC poster thing myself and carried a small child. Well, he only had little legs and we were in a hurry.

And strangely, the evacuation has its lighter moments; one of the paramedics has a tendency to attempt to catch any animal that passes him, failing however to get a hold on a chicken, a duck, a cow, or a goat. Actually the goats want to accompany us of their own accord anyway, viewing the whole thing as some sort of pleasure jaunt. Red Cross and Red Crescent alike are smoking heavily as they go, lighting each other’s cigarettes.

In a straggly convoy we leave the silent houses and walk back towards army lines. 4pm is drawing near. In the Gaza city, Israeli planes continue shelling during the supposed 3 hour ceasefire, but here soldiers have watched us in eerie silence, apart from tank engines.

When the children see the tanks, their faces twist, and they reach for their mothers hands, some having to be forced to continue moving past them. Guns are trained on us. Now we can see the earth mounds we have to climb over that have our vehicles on the other side. But! It’s 4pm. Woe betide holding off the day’s ceasefire end for another 5 minutes. Whoosh of a rocket, everyone tenses, it explodes just behind the building the ambulances are parked beside. Children stumble on rubble and begin to wail. Nearby gunfire begins.

And strangely, the point after we climb over the line and open our vehicles doors is when some of the adults begin to cry anxiously. Perhaps they think there won’t be enough space for all – and we do have to shove people in, including into the ambulance carrying the three dead we stretchered out. “Where is Jusef?” “Where is Samir?” Parents lose sight of children and panic. But in the end we get them all in, and drive that oh-so-short distance back to Al Quds hospital, where people tumble out of the vans. And then there is a bright moment, which I watch from a window above; families arriving and claiming their missing people.

I sit down to eat cold rice with the medics on duty, but before I can take a mouthful, get physically hauled up 6 flights of stairs by one of the medics who was on the evacuation, to find that being on today’s team apparently merits very tasty scrambled eggs instead. We hear that on another Red Cross evacuation, the army shot at and injured one of the Red Cross workers.

Some moments of Friday 9th Jan:

…standing ten floors up in the Ramattan press building (which got struck the other day) watching phosphorous shells falling on the eastern area of Gaza city, again and again, bright white smoke rising. This stuff can burn through to the bone; the doctors say they haven’t seen anything like it. Now the thought of being underneath that does frighten me.

…discovering our final remaining internet/food cafe has been threatened with bombing and so has closed. We are *hoping* it’s temporary. It is incredibly difficult to find ways to get information out now, since movement and electricity are so limited.

…while on ambulance shift, visiting Dr Halid of the lovely smile, who is tired and missing his family. Everyone in the hospital seems to have their family on the other side of the army blockade. The 14 year old boy in the ICU bed is gone. In his place is a little one, almost a baby, his chest rising and falling with the ventilator’s jerk – Abed, enlarged pupils indicating the usual explosion-caused brain injury. Dr H realises his oxygen levels are low and swiftly begins to try to clear a blockage, asking me to hand him things. “He will die,” says Dr H, “but he will not die of suffocation.” In the middle of this EB appears to hurry me to the ambulance, I tell him I can’t come. Later I hear from him that the call turns out to be to 3 injured people from the same family after an attack on their house, their injuries involve missing limbs and holes in chests he has to try to seal. His face is sad and subdued- no access to his wife and 3 kids, his house demolished, and a damn hard job. I feel extremely bad I wasn’t there to help, even just to share the weight of witnessing these terrible things.

…one of the medics telling me about a call the Red Crescent received yesterday, from a woman sobbing that she had no flour to make bread and could not feed her children. “What could I do? All I had to offer anyone was an ambulance.” he said.

…coming home this morning to discover the fire station on the other side of the road is no more. Glad I wasn’t home for that.

Saturday 3pm:

Just posting this now from Ramattan, their Wifi is working today thank goodness and they don’t mind us hitching a ride on it. Mo stands at the window watching Israeli tanks shell buildings in the distance. As usual smoke is rising in several locations. There is a press conference going on behind me about the fact that the government body that manages the water here is now unable to guarantee waste water treatment or drinking water. I am hearing of more and more houses with no water at all. I suppose maybe next time I go to fill my water container there maybe nothing to fill it with. What happens then?

The FreeGaza boat is trying to reach us again tomorrow!!!! Bless their brave hearts.