الخميس، 19 مارس 2009

US Eyewitness in Gaza

US Eyewitness in Gaza: 'The reality of a very real bloodbath set in...'

By Roxe Mishaan

It took me a month to write this email. In that month, I've been through a
whirlwind of emotions, trying to find away to process the things that I
saw. I still haven't figured it out.

I went to Gaza with a group of lawyers to investigate violations of
international law. We crossed into Gaza through the Egyptian border
crossing at Rafah. At first we were fairly convinced we wouldn't get
through. We had heard different stories of internationals trying to get
through and then getting turned away -- they didn't have the proper
credentials, they didn't have a letter from their embassy, etc. It made it
all the more anti-climactic when we got through with no problem. just a
minor 7-hour detainment at the border, which was really nothing at all.
they said we were free to go. so we boarded a bus and drove the half-mile
to the Palestinian side of the crossing. when we got there, we went
through the world's one and only Palestinian Authority border crossing. we
were the only ones there. they stamped all our passports and gave us a
hero's welcome -- invited us to sit down for tea and have some desserts.
they could not believe an American delegation was there, in Gaza.
as far
as we learned, we were only the second American delegation to enter Gaza
since the offensive -- after a delegation of engineers. We were certainly
the first and only delegation of American lawyers. while we were trying to
avoid the mandatory Palestinian shmooze time with tea and snacks, waiting
for our cabs to arrive to take us to our hotel, we felt a bomb explode. to
our unexperienced senses, it felt like it was right under us. i got
immediately anxious and decided we need to get out of there. our
Palestinian hosts laughed at me kindly and said "don't worry this is
normal here". somehow, not that comforting. we got in our two cabs and
starting heading from the border to our hotel in Gaza City. the ride from
Rafah to Gaza City was about 40 minutes. as soon as we left the border
gates, we began to see the bombed out buildings. one of my companions
yelled out "holy shit!" and we looked to where she was pointing and saw
the giant crater in the building. then my other travel comp
turned to her and said "you can't yell 'holy shit' every time you see a
bombed out building. we'll all have heart attacks." and she was right. the
entire 40-minute drive to Gaza City, our cab driver pointed out the sights
around us. he explained what each bombed out building was, who was living
there and what had been a big story in the news. all we saw was
decimation. one building after another collapsed into rubble.

When we got to our hotel in Gaza City, I was surprised. It was standing --
no bomb craters, no burnt out sections. and it was still in business. we
checked in and we had running water and electricity -- both things that i
was unsure about before coming to Gaza. that first night we arrived we met
with two United Nations representatives: one with the UN Office of the
High Commissioner for Human RIghts and one with the UN Refugee and Works
Agency for Palestinian Refugees. John Ging, the director of UNRWA in Gaza
was clearly upset at the recent offensive. A well-spoken man with a strong
commitment to human rights and international law, he told us about the UN
schools that were hit during the onslaught. He kept saying that the "rule
of law means you apply it to everyone equally". He badly wanted to see an
end to Israeli impunity. We got a tour of the facility that was shelled
during the offensive. We saw the hollowed out warehouse after it was
shelled with white phosphorous and everything
inside was destroyed -- medicines, food, spare automobile parts to keep
their vehicles up and running (pictured above). John Ging told us about
how the UN had called the Israelis after the first shell and told them not
to target the UN compound, that there were gasoline tanks on the property.
they received assurances that they would not be targeted. Moments later
the Israelis shelled the exact area where the gas tanks were located with
white phosphorous. the phosphorous hit the warehouses and UN staff risked
their lives to move the gas tanks before the fire reached them, avoiding a
massive explosion.

That first night in Gaza was almost surreal. It was so quiet, almost
deafening. I was convinced that any moment a missile would come screeching
through the air and shatter the night. there was a sense of waiting for
something to happen. but nothing did. the night gave way to morning and I
awoke in Gaza for the first time in my life.

The things we saw that morning would turn out to be the hardest. We went
to Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. In the parking lot we saw bombed out,
twisted skeletons of ambulances before we were hurried into the building
to meet with doctors. Standing in the middle of a care unit, I saw a
little boy, about 5 years old, hobble down the hallway, holding his
mother's hand. He had a leg injury and looked in pain. The doctors wanted
to show us the white phosphorous cases, since we had asked about that. The
doctor pointed to two rooms with patients we could talk to. There were two
women in the first one. The one closest to the door just stared at us
blankly, not saying anything. It turns out she lost her whole family
during the assault. A few of us went into the next room. There we found
Mohammad lying in bed -- heavily bandaged, missing his left eye. He told
us the story of how his whole family was burned to death when two white
phosphorous shells hit their family car. He was lucky
have been knocked out of the car by the first shell. He lay unconscious
and burning on the ground, while several neighbors pulled him away. He
didn't see his family die -- both parents, his brother, and his sister.
they were in their car driving to a relative's house to get away from the
shelling in their neighborhood. it was during what was supposed to be a
3-hour ceasefire. Their car only made it 70 meters. He and his brother
were both in college. His brother was going to graduate this year. As he
told us that, a fellow delegate, Linda, who had been translating, suddenly
burst into tears. Mohammad grabbed her hand and told her it was ok.
Strange how people ended up comforting us. The doctor came in and told us
they were changing a child's dressing if we wanted to come see. We walked
into a room to see a baby -- about 2 years old -- lying on a table. She
suddenly sat up and I saw that one whole side of her face and head were
severely burnt. I had assumed she was hit with a w
eapon of
some kind, but it turns it was a classic case of "collateral damage": she
had run up to her mom when they started bombing near the house, while her
mom was cooking. Then a bomb exploded nearby and the burning oil in her
mother's pan spilled all over this young girl's face. While we stood
there, she just cried and called for her mom. We all stood watching,
feeling helpless and guilty.

We left the hospital and went to Al-Zeytoun, a farming community on the
southern outskirts of Gaza City. It was one of the hardest hit areas at
the beginning of the ground invasion. The neighborhood was almost entirely
inhabited by members of the extended Sammouni family. The town was in the
news a lot after soldiers evacuated home after home of Sammounis into one
house, that they then shelled, killing dozens of people. We walked up the
dirt road and saw the rubble. Only one or two buildings left standing; the
rest were completely decimated. Scattered tents served as makeshift
shelters. We split up into teams of two and began interviewing survivors.
We found two women sitting silently in front of the rubble that used to be
someone's home. One of the women, Zahwa, described the night where she saw
her husband executed in front of her with his hands above his head (Zahwa
Sammouni is pictured above sitting in front of a tent. Her house was
destroyed the night the soldiers came t
the neighborhood). She then huddled with her children in a back room of
the house as soldiers shot through the two windows above them. She showed
us the bullet holes in the wall of the house, the heap of rubble that used
to be her house, and the wounds in her back from being grazed with bullets
while she hunched over her children. Her 10-year-old son showed us the
shrapnel wounds in his leg and proudly displayed the large piece of
shrapnel that he single-handedly pulled out of his chest that night. His
cousins then gave us a tour of one of the few houses left standing -- one
that the soldiers had used as a base, after they rounded up all those in
the neighborhood and demolished all the other houses. The house was a
mess. All the family's possessions were thrown around the outside
perimeter. Bags of feces from the soldiers were strewn around outside. The
inside was ransacked. The soldiers had covered nearly every surface with
graffiti: "death to the Arabs", "if it weren't for
the world would be a better place", "kill Arabs". I feverishly took notes
and photographs of the stories of Zeytoun, knowing I did not want to stop
and think about what had happened here.

Throughout the day, we felt distant bomb blasts. I still gave a little
jump when I heard the tremors and I can't say they didn't make me nervous.
But the Palestinians we were meeting with didn't bat an eyelid. They knew
when they were in danger and they knew when it didn't matter. "Oh, they're
just bombing the tunnels" or "that's all the way in the north" people
would say. Cold comfort.

We met with paramedics from the Palestine Red Crescent Society. They
described how they were shot at, and sometimes hit, while trying to reach
injured people. We met with human rights organizations who described the
difficulties of trying to collect accurate information and trying to help
everyone when there was such widespread devastation. We met with a
psychiatrist in Gaza City who ran one of very few mental health centers
there. He wondered how to treat a population of 1.5 million who were all
suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "Listen to the kids tell
their stories" he told us. "They tell it like it happened to someone
else". That's one of the symptoms of PTSD apparently. and we saw it again
and again. Whether it was the little boy describing his father's execution
in front of him, or kids showing us the shrapnel they pulled out of
themselves and their dead relatives, or a little girl talking about how
her house was destroyed -- none of them broke down, none o
f them
cried, none of them seemed scared. There was complete detachment from the
horror they were living and their identification with it. A scarred
generation that will inherit this conflict.

I left Gaza by hitching a ride with a car full of BBC journalists. We
headed in the Land Rover, with "TV" painted on the hood, down the coastal
road that winds the length of Gaza. It was my first time seeing the Sea in
Palestine, I remember thinking. what a strange feeling. To be in a country
i knew so well, and yet be somewhere so completely unfamiliar. The
privilege of having a chance to go there and the utter relief at being
able to leave were competing in my head. The crossing back into Egypt was
short and painless. But as soon as i saw the other side of Rafah again, i
felt a deep ache of regret and guilt that didn't let up for weeks. Regret
at having left before my work was done and guilt that I had wanted to get
out of there.

Gaza was like nothing I'd ever seen. The reality of a very real bloodbath
set in. I saw what this onslaught did to people -- real people. i looked
into their eyes and heard their stories and saw their wounds. It made war
realer than i ever wanted it to be. There still isn't yet a day that goes
by that I don't think about what i saw and heard, and feel guilty about
leaving, and sad that people are still living with such pain, fear, trauma
and loss. I think the hardest part is knowing that as a world, we utterly
failed the Palestinians of Gaza. We stood and watched them die and
justified our own inaction. It is something that should bring a little
shame to us all.