26 Nov 2023 at 05:04
There will be a ceasefire in Gaza from Friday, but Hamas and Israel want to resume fighting after that. What is it like to provide help or to have to flee from Gaza as a nurse? “It’s a horrible situation.”
“I have rarely felt so powerless in this work,” says care provider Hielke Zantema. As an emergency aid coordinator at ZOA, he is often on site within a few days. For example, when the war broke out in Ukraine. The situation in Gaza is very different. “I have never experienced an area where two million people live in such a small area being hermetically sealed off from just about everything.”
If you attack here, “you know there will be large-scale civilian casualties,” Derk Segaar adds. He has been head of international aid at the Dutch Red Cross for more than two years now and has been working in the aid sector for years. The population density makes it virtually impossible to distinguish between civilians and Hamas targets.
Not only Palestinian civilians are killed by Israel’s bombings, but also aid workers. When the first ambulance was hit, Japanese nurse Miné Yamamoto* thought it was an accident. “But it turned out to be quite a number.”
‘Safety is not guaranteed anywhere in Gaza’
“The suffering is happening on a scale that is difficult to comprehend,” says Segaar. There is a lack of clean water, food and medicine. This also causes many people to become ill. In addition, there is the violence. Both Hamas and Israel have indicated they will continue fighting after the ceasefire.
“The safety of civilians comes first and that is not guaranteed anywhere in Gaza,” Segaar says about the fighting. “They are in the middle of a conflict zone where they cannot leave and are constantly in direct danger.” Yamamoto experienced this firsthand. She went to Gaza as head nurse for a coordinating position. But she didn’t get around to that, because a few days after arriving she heard the first rockets flying from Gaza to Israel. “It sounded like fireworks.”
It was around seven in the morning on a Saturday. She immediately ran to the window and saw a rocket going through the sky. Colleagues who lived in the same flat initially thought it was an exercise. Until a colleague ran upstairs and shouted, “Go to the basement immediately!”
A few days later there was an explosion near the apartment in Gaza City. “I really thought they bombed our building,” Yamamoto says. Everything shook. “The sound of breaking glass was tremendous.” A window frame ended up on the street. Not shortly afterwards, she and her colleagues were transferred to a UN building nearby. There were both Palestinian and international people there.
‘Palestinians blocked the exit’
It was in that building that Yamamoto gave up hope for the first time. When she and other international colleagues prepared for the next move, Palestinians blocked the road. “They were afraid of being bombed if the international staff left.”
“It’s not fair,” Yamamoto emphasizes. “Because we are international and not Palestinians, we have the right and opportunity to escape to a safe place.” That’s why she didn’t panic. “If we can’t figure it out, that’s okay. Then we’re the same as other people.” But in the end they were allowed to go. This is how the international aid workers ended up in the more southern city of Khan Younis.
After another move within the city, the aid workers were given a place in a parking lot in a large UN complex in the open air. About 200 to 300 meters from the parking lot, Hamas launched rockets, Yamamoto said. “When Hamas launched, it went over our parking lot.” She was able to see a rocket flying overhead from up close and knew that a response from Israel would follow shortly afterwards. “That was very scary.”
Local employees risked their lives
Yamamoto was still able to get food at the first locations. Later it became more difficult. “Sometimes we ate dry instant noodles because we didn’t have boiling water. And a can of tuna.” At one of the later UN locations, Yamamoto was dependent on support staff from Gaza. International people were not allowed to leave the site.
Sometimes we ate dry instant noodles because we had no boiling water.
Miné Yamamoto, nurse
In the beginning, the support staff even drove back and forth to Gaza City – at the risk of their own lives – to collect mattresses and medicine from the aid workers’ home. But especially the food was of vital importance. “We wouldn’t have survived without the staff.” Yamamoto is extremely grateful to them. “On the other hand, I felt really bad about being such a burden to them.”
People got diarrhea and became depressed
Yamamoto slowly lost hope that she would cross the border soon. Some colleagues developed diarrhea, others became depressed. In addition, there was increasing unrest at the gate of the UN compound in Khan Younis, because people outside thought there was more food behind the gate.
“That was right,” Yamamoto thinks. Even though they had little and had to share a toilet with many people, the situation outside the gate was probably much worse. After the aid workers were moved again to a villa on the coast, they were finally allowed to cross the border. Yamamoto didn’t believe it until she was in Egypt.
“When things like this happen, it’s our job to help, but we couldn’t,” Yamamoto said. Gaza, for example, is particularly in need of highly specialized medical aid. Such as the surgeons and an explosives expert from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who were able to enter Gaza at the end of October. Segaar: “These surgeons specialize in serious injuries such as arms and legs that have been torn off by an explosion and massive burns.” An explosives expert ensures that citizens and ambulances can move safely.
The supply of fuel is literally of vital importance.
Hielke Zantema, aid worker
In addition to medical aid, it mainly concerns basic necessities of life. “Water and bread are immediately the biggest problem,” Zantema emphasizes. His organization therefore helps with food distribution on a small scale. According to him, a lack of fuel is the biggest bottleneck. This is necessary to bake bread, pump water and keep hospitals running. “The supply of fuel is literally of vital importance.”
They’ll be ready when more fuel comes. “Then we can really do something substantial.” For example, there is a well at a school in Khan Younis from which much more water can be pumped using fuel and moved with trucks. “We could provide drinking water to thousands of people.”
A ceasefire has been in place since Friday morning. If all goes well, this will take at least four days. “Four days is so short,” says Yamamoto. It is not enough time to provide sufficient help, but because the need is so great, she still thinks it can make a big difference.
She hopes that aid workers will also be allowed to go to the north of Gaza. That is now prohibited for everyone. “No one knows what the situation is like there. So much has been bombed and there are still people there.”
“What we have been able to do so far is ultimately a drop in the ocean,” Segaar emphasizes. As long as the fighting continues, there will continue to be casualties and the need will remain great. “Humanitarian aid will not provide the solution. Ultimately, a political solution is needed.”
*Miné Yamamoto is not a real name. Her name and aid organization have been changed at the request of her employer. Her surname is known to our editors.