In the line of fire
It’s become an all too familiar scene on our TV screens: a destroyed house, a collection of rubble, a crying woman, an injured child, a flak-jacketed reporter frowning into a camera trying to convey the enormity of it all. The world pays attention for a while only for repetition and incomprehension to blunt the outrage, helped by politicians seeking to explain, contextualise and ultimately justify the repeated death and devastation.
Having recently endured a third military assault from Israel since 2009, the besieged territory of Gaza has suffered this moral fatigue perhaps more than anywhere in recent years. It’s been the job of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to keep the reality of the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the blockade of Gaza in the global media spotlight since its foundation during the second intifada in 2001.
One of its volunteers in Gaza, Charlie Andreasson from Sweden, has been present throughout the month-long military incursion and witnessed the very real horrors of war first-hand. Here are some of his recollections.
LIVING UNDER ATTACK
I have been in Gaza 10 months now. I initially came to take part in the Gaza Ark, a Canadian project that aimed to break the blockade of the territory by sailing to Europe in a wooden boat built here. Even before the latest assault, just three percent of all goods for export could actually leave, which has had a devastating effect on the economy. We were planning to leave in September 2013 but the boat was targeted by Israeli forces on two separate occasions, eventually setting it on fire with incendiary missiles. There is nothing left of the boat now, or the project as a whole, so I decided to stay in the area and work for the ISM.
Much of the group’s work in Gaza consists of accompanying farmers to any land near the border with Israel as they plant or harvest their crops. This is to try to protect them from fire by Israeli soldiers, which is a common occurrence. During the recent attacks, though, we have shifted our focus to staying in the area’s hospitals, where we hope our presence will help deter attacks and also provide a position to monitor what is taking place and release the information to the media. We started in Al-Wafa Hospital in Gaza City, a very important rehabilitation and geriatric facility, but a few days after we left it was hit by missile fire and much of it was destroyed.
We then moved to Beit Hanoun Hospital, where we were trapped by shelling almost immediately after we arrived. We had gone there to try and evacuate patients but huge explosions began to shake the whole building and none of us could get out. The hospital only has two storeys so we helped take everyone from the first floor down to the basement, keeping everyone in a corridor to ensure there were a couple of walls between us and the outside. There was a lot of shrieking and crying from the families there and all we could do was to play with the children, keep them busy and also take some of the burden off their parents. It was a very long night and, honestly, I really didn’t expect to see daylight again.
SHOT IN THE RUBBLE
Probably the worst thing we encountered was the Shijayeh area, which was totally devastated by a series of attacks. It looked like the surface of the moon – there is nothing else I can compare it to. We went out to try and find any survivors and that was when we came across a young man trying to look for his cousin in the ruins. We followed him to see if we could help and just as we passed a small alleyway, we heard a shot. We don’t know if it was from a sniper or a soldier hiding, but we instantly ran for cover. It split our group in two.
For some reason, the man we were following decided to try and join the other group and, as he passed the alleyway again, he was shot in what I think was the leg. He was laying on his back in the middle of the rubble, screaming in pain. As it was too dangerous to go out into the open to try and help him, we tried to find a rope or something for him to grab so we could pull him to safety. Then came a second shot, which missed, then a third and fourth, which didn’t. They were the shots that killed him.
We didn’t know who he was. We had only just met him. But we had caught the incident on video and it was when we uploaded it to our site that his sister saw it on the laptop and realised who it was. We have since been able to meet the family, including his father, and learn his name: Saleem Shammaly. He was 23.
DEALING WITH THE IMAGES
I can’t forget some of things I have seen. I have a video of a drone attack and its aftermath in which you can see body parts scattered across the street. I have seen a car hit by a missile, with the swollen, scorched body still inside but the legs on the other side of the road. There was the morgue in Shifa Hospital that couldn’t cope with the influx, with multiple bodies having to be placed on a single stretcher until their families could retrieve them.
Should people see these pictures in order to know what is really happening, or will it work the other way, to numb people to the carnage that is going on? I don’t know. I think perhaps we should focus on explaining to people what is happening so they can create the images in their minds. I have to admit, it’s hard to go on when you see things like that but you have to. You have to put your feelings aside and continue to try and help the others, although I’m sure it will catch up with me at some point in the future.
Oddly, it’s not all destruction. There is still another side of life here. People still go to the market to buy food, in moments of calm children are out in the streets playing football, we are still greeted with smiles and, all through Ramadan, we were invited into people’s homes for glasses of tea. It’s a picture with two faces. They have to carry on and so should we