oPt

OPT - Cast Lead Aggression 1st Anniversary, Day 17: Rescuing the Rescuers, Hamouda Towers, Jabalia, North Gaza

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Lives Destroyed

Series of Personal Testimonies, Reveal How One Year after Operation Cast Lead, Life in Gaza is Not Back to Normal

Day 17:

Rescuing the Rescuers, Hamouda Towers, Jabalia, North Gaza

As civilians were fleeing Hamouda residential tower block in Jabalia in north Gaza on 12 January 2009, Dr. Issa Saleh, 28, and medic Ahmed Abu Foul, 25, were running in. An Israeli aircraft had launched a missile at the tower and as residents attempted to escape, the doctor and the medic went in search of the dead and wounded. As they were attempting to evacuate a dead body, another missile hit the tower. Dr Saleh was killed instantly and Ahmed injured. Al Mezan interviewed Ahmed a year after the attacks to see how he and his colleagues are coping with the trauma of Operation Cast Lead, in which emergency workers were continually targeted by Israeli forces. Dr. Saleh was one of seventeen emergency workers killed in the line of duty during the offensive.

Rescuing the Rescuers

"Can you imagine it? Emergency workers going out to rescue emergency workers?" asks Ahmed Abu Foul. "If I live for another 50 years I will never forget what happened to us during that offensive. Even now, when I'm talking to you about the attacks on Hamouda tower, I feel as though it's happening now. I even feel the pain, not just the psychological pain. I mean the physical pain that I felt during those moments when I was trying to lift up the stretcher by myself."

As Ahmed was running into the tower that day, a local resident shouted that there was a casualty on the fifth floor. Ahmed ran up to find the victim already dead. "I was by myself at that stage," he says. "I found the dead body on the stairs. The victim's left hand was severed, his internal organs torn out of his body and he had injuries in the head. I started yelling for someone to help me carry him out on the stretcher and tried to drag the body onto it by myself. As I was about to give up with the stretcher and try to throw the body over my shoulder, Dr Issa arrived to help. A civilian, a 17-year-old called Mahmoud, turned up around the same time. Dr. Issa and I quarrelled for a while because we both wanted to take the back end of the stretcher. It's easier to take down the stairs from the back," he explains, "I gave in to Dr Issa and Mahmoud and I picked up the front in the end. Like that, we all started going down the stairs. I felt as though death was really close in those moments."

It should have been me

As they were going down the stairs, Ahmed saw Israeli tanks in the distance through a small window. "I tried to show my florescent jacket so that they would know we were rescue workers. But then, there was another explosion. I felt something hit me in the head, but I couldn't see because of the smoke. I put my hand on the back of my head and I found blood and brain. I thought I was going to die and I asked Mahmoud to ask my family and my wife to forgive me (a request commonly made by Muslims on their deathbed)." As the smoke cleared, Mahmoud explained to Ahmed that it wasn't his own brain he could feel. "I then saw Dr. Issa had been decapitated and realised it must have been his head hitting my head and his brain on the back of my head. I felt that it should have been me who'd been killed. If I'd been carrying the back of the stretcher I'd have been right in the line of the missile instead of Dr. Issa."

Ahmed and Mohammed sheltered for a while in a nearby apartment and then abandoned Dr. Issa's body and the first body they'd found, which had been torn to pieces by the next explosion, and made it down the stairs. When they got out of the building, they found that all the ambulances had left. "They thought we were all dead," explains Ahmed, "We had to wait for another ambulance to come. I stayed in the hospital for one day and then I went back out on the ambulances, even though I lost my hearing for a week because of the explosion."

I don't really care about anything now

Ahmed believes that all of his colleagues who served as emergency workers during Operation Cast Lead were psychologically affected by the attacks they were subject to. "I was worried about my colleagues' psychological state after the offensive," he explains, "So I arranged for us to have a group therapy session. Everyone started talking about the white phosphorus attacks on Fakhoura AND Beit Lahyia Schools. When the medics from my area arrived there, they couldn't help anyone because most of the injured were their friends and relatives. I've been really affected too. I've become sort of careless and I've lost my emotions. I feel as though I don't care about anything now, even if somebody came and told me that my father had died. Now, when I get angry I find myself hitting and throwing things. Before, I used to think about my reactions before I acted but now I just react. I feel nervous and I shout a lot now. Even when I see my little daughter, Ola, crying I don't want to pick her up and comfort her like other fathers, I just call her mother to get her. Physically I'm still quite weak. I've lost the feeling in my left leg and I still have bits of Dr. Issa's skull lodged in my head but I'm afraid to have an operation to remove them. Why are medical workers attacked by the Israeli forces? Don't they understand that we are a humanitarian service? That attacks on us affect all of our society?"