Gaza's wounded: Living reminder of ravages of war
Aug. 10, 2014
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — When an Israeli airstrike hit the Gaza home for the handicapped where she was staying, Sally Saqr was left shattered. Her pelvis, both legs and an arm were broken, her skull fractured, much of her body burned. In the hospital, doctors couldn't put her limbs in casts because multiple other wounds had to heal first. But after a week, her mother had to take the 20 year old home because Gaza's main Shifa Hospital needed the bed as more broken bodies flowed in every day from the bombardment. Saqr has been severely handicapped since birth because of complications during delivery. She can't speak, her body never developed beyond the size of a child. She was able to walk — with difficulty — but after her wounds in the July 12 airstrike, she couldn't walk at all, and had to be put in diapers because she couldn't reach the bathroom. Her mother has been overwhelmed. Saqr is in excruciating pain and screams in her sleep. "My burden is heavy," said her 36-year-old mother, Soumah Abu Shanab. "Now I must feed her, bathe her and change her diapers." She spoke as three visiting nurses changed Saqr's dressings. Saqr clutched a box of medicine. Just holding it distracts her from the pain. Much of the world's attention has focused on the Palestinian death toll in the Gaza war, with more than 1,900 killed, including at least 450 children, Palestinian health officials say. But a longer-term trauma may be the large number of wounded — more than 9,800, mostly civilians, including at least 3,000 children, officials say. The dead have been quickly and often unceremoniously buried even as fighting raged. The wounded are a living reminder of the ravages of war. Their numbers have overwhelmed Gaza's medical system, already dilapidated after seven years of blockade on the tiny territory by Israel and Egypt, as well as the diversion of resources to build up Hamas' military capabilities. Gaza's 25 hospitals have a total of 2,047 beds, or 1.3 beds per 1,000 people, among the lowest ratios in the world, according to United Nations figures. Nearly a third of the hospitals have been damaged in the fighting, according to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that looks after Palestinian refugees. The thousands discharged — many with severe wounds patched together temporarily — are then left to the care of already devastated families who are grieving for dead loved ones and struggling to get by in the devastation of the war. Some of the wounded return not to home but to U.N.-run schools packed with displaced people. Some crowd into the houses of extended families along with other relatives with nowhere else to go. Most homes are without electricity or running water. Around 250,000 of Gaza's 1.8 million residents have been displaced, while some 65,000 lost their home in the fighting, according to U.N. figures. In the crowded households, the wounded become a center of attention as relatives try to provide small comforts. Most are immobile, or can move very little. Families often put the wounded's mattress or bed by a window to get air in stifling rooms amid the power outages. Though nurses can sometimes visit homes, many wounded have to make daily trips back to the hospital for treatment, risking complications from the exertions of the trip and the summer heat. "Some of them don't have the basic needs of life at home," Dr. Sobhi Skaek, head of surgery at Shifa Hospital, told The Associated Press. "We have a serious problem." Neighbors have lent a helping hand, but it is a drop in the ocean. Egypt took 220 wounded from Gaza, the West Bank 29, Jordan 43, and Israel arranged for 87 to be admitted to hospitals in east Jerusalem. The large number of wounded speaks to the ferocity of Israeli shelling — nearly 5,000 strikes since the war began on July 8, according to the Israeli military. Israel says its campaign aims to stop rocket fire into Israel by Gaza militants and that it targets sites of rocket launchers and militants' command and control, which were tightly interwoven with the population. Israel says it does its utmost to avoid hitting civilians, warning them to leave areas about to be attacked. But repeatedly during the war, entire families have been devastated by strikes, killing multiple members at once and leaving others torn by shrapnel, burned or crushed in rubble. This week in Shifa Hospital, 10-year-old Abdul-Qader Sahweel grimaced in pain and clenched back tears as medics changed the dressings on his wounds. He has to be brought back and forth to the hospital every day for the treatment. The boy was sleeping with his family in a classroom in a U.N.-run school when three Israel artillery shells hit the building on July 30. His eldest brother died instantly — decapitated in the blast, his mother says. Another brother is in a coma in an Israeli hospital. His mother, Yasmeen, and 4-year-old brother were lightly wounded. Abdul-Qader was sprayed by shrapnel in his chest, right eye and leg. The daily trips to the hospital — plus visits every three days to an eye clinic — cost about $10 each, a considerable expense, said his father, Mohammed Sahweel, who is unemployed like around 50 percent of Gaza's population. After the hospital's visit Wednesday, the boy and his father returned to the home of relatives where his family is now staying. Exhausted and uncomfortable, Abdul-Qader said he has recurring headaches, a high temperature and can't sleep. His right eye was red and swollen. His family is worried about long term damage — his vision in the eye is severely impaired. "Before the war began, I was enjoying my summer holiday. I went to the park, played football and went to the beach," the boy said. "Now I cannot do any of that." Fahd Abu Sultan, a 25-year-old laborer, paid dearly for an act of courage on July 16. He rushed to help when an Israeli navy boat shelled a group of boys playing soccer on a Gaza beach, killing one and wounding others. As Sultan tried to carry away the wounded, the shelling resumed, killing three others. Abu Sultan has five gaping shrapnel wounds. He lay on a sofa in his home while male nurses changed the dressing, causing him so much pain he had to pause as he described how the rocket hit only meters (yards) away from him. "I kept on screaming to the ambulance people to come to rescue me but no one heard me," he recalled. "I was the last one to be taken to hospital." Bahaa Eilewah, 16, was trying to help the injured in the Gaza district of Shijayiah on July 30 when he himself was hit by shrapnel. Both his legs were broken and are now in casts. He may not be able to walk unaided again for a year. He thinks about how he used to play table tennis at a mosque recreation center. "Now I don't know when I will do that again."