‘They aim to kill’: Gaza doctors recount experiences as war rages
Doctors at al-Shifa hospital tell Al Jazeera about the emotional and practical struggles they face working to save lives during Israel’s bombardment.
Gaza City – For more than 10 days, Palestinian doctors in the Gaza Strip’s main al-Shifa hospital have been working around the clock to save lives during the Israeli army’s relentless bombardment of the besieged enclave.
At least 230 people, including 65 children, have been killed since Israel began bombing the Gaza Strip on May 10. More than 1,500 have been wounded.
The killing this week of two senior doctors – Ayman Abu al-Ouf, head of internal medicine at al-Shifa hospital, and psychiatric neurologist Mooein Ahmad al-Aloul – dealt a further psychological blow to medics already working under immense pressure and faced with a severe shortage of medical resources due to multiple wars and a 14-year blockade.
Al Jazeera spoke to doctors at al-Shifa about what it means, physically and emotionally, to work amid a raging conflict. Their interviews below are edited for brevity and clarity.
Sarah El-Saqqa, 33, general surgery
“During the current escalation, I’ve been working under pressure for about 13 hours a day – I come to the hospital at 7:30pm and leave at 8 or 8:30am the following day.
“This is stressful and exhausting … being away from family in the middle of all the bombing is worrying. I fear that one of my family members will be among the people we receive at the hospital.
“They are very difficult cases, the likes of which we only see in wars. We do not know what kind of weapons are being used but the targeting aims to kill, not to terrorise or cause injuries. Most of the cases received at the hospital are people who have either been killed or have critical wounds.
“The death of Dr Ayman Abu al-Auf was one of the most difficult things to hear. He taught me at the university and then I became his colleague in the hospital’s internal medicine department, which he headed.
“What is happening in the Gaza Strip is a war crime and a crime of genocide, and the international human rights organisations must intervene to stop this war and not allow it to be repeated again.”
Hani al-Shanti, 42, consultant vascular specialist
“In this war, the number of people killed is higher than the number of those seriously wounded. In the 2014 war, when the Shati camp was struck, there were many injuries and we had to spend several days in the operating room to save lives. I am not a military expert but this time, the main aim seems to kill people. That’s why we have had fewer surgical interventions to save lives.
“In the hospital, we feel safe, but my anxiety about my wife, children and family members is high. At home, this feeling is even more intense because the bombing is in your surroundings, close to you. I live in a state of emergency at home and in the hospital.
“The sound of the bombardment during this war is terrifying; the sound itself has caused injuries, and there have been deaths from heart attacks due to the sound of missiles and not from direct injury.
“We suffer from a lack of sleep, at the hospital or at home. This causes chronic insomnia and depression. Also, the war has begun to affect services like water, electricity and waste, in addition to the spread of COVID-19, leaving the health sector on the verge of collapse.
“The martyrdom of my colleague Ayman Abu al-Auf and his family was devastating. Only his son survived the attack but is in intensive care. He has no knowledge of their deaths and has been asking every day about his father and his family – we’ve been telling him that they are in the surgical ward.
“The world has oppressed the Gaza Strip. We will remain in crises and wars for several reasons: The Israelis break promises and the international donors do not abide by their pledges either to rebuild or lift the siege.
“I wish Gaza could live in peace. I wish I could live in an independent country, to live in dignity.”
Amid Awad, 48, specialist in vascular surgery
“Doctors are here around the clock. We start the day by examining the wounded to check whether there were any complications or there’s a need for medical intervention or surgery.
“The need for vascular surgery during this war is not like it was during the Great March of Return protests when Israeli snipers shot to incapacitate Palestinians, especially those under the age of 18. This time, most people brought to the hospital are already dead.
“There are explosions like nothing we’ve experienced before. This has affected our children’s psychological state. Our children have not seen a beautiful day in more than 15 years.
“I think about my family at home all day, but when I come into the hospital I forget the anxiety because God protects them.
“There is a shortage of medical materials and devices. We have expertise that is not available in neighbouring countries. When medical delegations come here, they are amazed by what we are doing in the sector.
“An international stand is required. We are a defenceless people and our media and arsenal are weak, unlike Israel’s. I hold another nationality, I am Russian and I voted for President Vladimir Putin. I want to request his support for us, Russian citizens, to stop this escalation and the massacres. My wife is also Russian, she has witnessed three Israeli wars on Gaza, and can cope with the current situation better than me.
“I fear that future generations of Palestinians will be disfigured by the weapons and bombs Israel is using. We do not have laboratories to examine them, but this matter will become apparent in the coming years. Cancers are in abundance and this is a result of what they used in previous wars.”
Muhammad Ibrahim al-Ron, 40, consultant surgeon and head of the general surgery department
“In this war, it’s difficult. The family needs you and the hospital needs you, but you can’t be in two places at the same time. In the hospital, work divided into three teams that work for 24 hours and rest for 24 hours. But we also come in during rest times.
“The enemy focuses on killing innocent civilians. Most of the cases that come as a result of the bombing of homes are children and women. These are military tactics, perhaps the enemy is trying to defeat people psychologically, and killing sows fear among people and destabilises them. This is the reality I’m seeing.
“The general morale in the Gaza Strip is high in response to [the events in] Jerusalem. But there is also fear because they are bombing civilians, so the movement of people and their displacement is not the same as before.
“The war has struck the heart of Gaza, the economy, companies, the press, towers, civilians and others.
“The health sector is suffering as a result of the blockade. There have been good periods and bad periods throughout but it worsened during the coronavirus crisis. We do not have the equipment. We work with primitive devices and we need a lot of medical gear, training and maintenance of diagnostic and therapeutic devices.
“The 15 years of the blockade correspond to 150 years in the medical progress that takes place outside the Gaza Strip. What is required now is a just solution to the Palestinian issue, so we can live like others.”
Abdul Hadi Mohammad Abu Shahla, 37, doctor of vascular surgery
“Since this war started, we get to the hospital at 7am and work for 24 hours, and then take a day to rest. We receive cases that need medical intervention, specialised in vascular surgery. But we also assist in other specialities, such as general surgery and thoracic surgery.
“We handle cases from all across the Gaza Strip. One of the most difficult situations was when an 11-year-old child came to us with shrapnel lodged in the aorta and the hepatic artery [supplying the liver]. We used a synthetic artery patch to mend the artery, and the operation was successful. But the child died two days later as a result of wounds in the head and chest.
“The nights I am home with my family at home reassure me, and the nights I work in the hospital… it’s difficult to balance between treating the injured and thinking about my family and checking on them.
“But we still have energy and the teams are ready to continue working despite the shortage of medical supplies which is acute in periods of wars and crises.
“I want the war to stop, as most of the cases are martyrs.”