Still Breathing, An Eyewitness Report from Gaza
By Caoimhe Butterly
The morgues of Gaza’s hospitals are over-flowing. The bodies in their
blood-soaked white shrouds cover the entire floor space of the 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, F16s, tanks and apaches
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 centre 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
acutely. 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- thirteen 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 Muhammud, a volunteer paramedic, murmured “ayeesh,
nufuss”- live, breathe- over and over to him. He lost consciousness as we
arrived at the hospital, received into 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 Muhammud
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 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 Muhammud’s body.
His brother rode with us, opening the shroud to tenderly kiss Muhammud’s
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 Shujahiya 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 time-frame 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 UNRWA compound and the hospital there was a deep awareness
that nowhere in Gaza is safe, or sacred.
We helped evacuate those assembled to near-by 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 over 46,000 Gazan 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. Over 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,