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Gaza: The wounds that don't heal

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MSF patients and staff talk about trauma one year after Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave

On May 10, 2021, Israel launched an aerial assault on Gaza in response to rocket attacks fired by Palestinian armed groups based in the coastal enclave. Over 11 days, Israeli airstrikes and shelling on the Gaza Strip killed 256 people, including 66 children. Approximately 2,000 Palestinians were injured during the bombings—including more than 600 children—some of whom lost their limbs or eyesight.

Sadly, the trauma of war is not new to most Palestinians in Gaza. In 2014, 11,000 Palestinians were injured during the Gaza War, and in 2018, more than 7,000 Palestinian protestors were shot by Israeli forces during the Great March of Return, a series of weekly demonstrations on the Gaza border. The trauma-of fearing for one’s life, of seeing one’s home in ruins, and of daily economic hardship compounded by violent events such as these-has made the mental health crisis in Gaza even more acute.

Of the two million Palestinians living in Gaza, more than 40 percent are children aged 14 years or younger. They have lived their entire lives under Israeli blockade, experienced three major offensives by Israel, and deal with repeated and ongoing trauma. It has been one year since the latest round of bombings, but Palestinians in the Gaza Strip feel more unsafe than ever. 

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides surgical and post-surgical care including mental health care to victims of burns and trauma in Gaza. Here, MSF patients and staff recount their experiences of the hostilities in May 2021 and the long-lasting impacts.

AHMAD
MSF patient, 41 years old.
I was injured on the first day of the bombings. I was at home when the house was hit. We didn’t know if it was a bomb or if something in the house had exploded. We just heard a massive noise and the house trembled. That’s when I saw my hand hanging from my arm. The whole family was together, it was Ramadan. Part of the house was destroyed, two of my cousins died, and another relative was left disabled.  

The blast was so strong that the neighbors were also injured. The neighbor’s son was walking outside and lost both of his eyes. He was only 9 years old, and he will never be able to see again. He was just playing outside.  

People were trying to put the victims in cars. Ambulances could not reach us, as the bombs were just falling everywhere. I was in a car with four other victims. One of them was another neighbor’s child. She died on her father’s lap right next to me, on the way to the hospital. The rest of us didn’t know if we would make it to the hospital alive, everything was being bombed all around us.  

I finally reached Al Shifa hospital and after a week I was  referred to MSF in Al Awda hospital. In both hospitals, they feared the bombs were going to hit us. Even hospitals were not safe this time.  

I had eight different surgeries and my hand was amputated. While I was at the hospital, I feared for my family. Their mental health was deeply affected, and loud noises still make my younger two cry. My mother was the one that suffered the most. She had a nervous breakdown, and she is now being cared for by mental health specialists. She still can’t talk about it without [having] a panic attack.  

What hurts the most is that I can’t provide [for] my family. I was a driver, and I can’t drive without my hand. I was responsible not only for my wife and kids but also for my elderly parents. 

I was supposed to receive a prosthetic hand, but due to the blockade, I have no idea when that is going to happen.  

Sometimes I ask myself why I survived. Sometimes I wish I had died with the others, so I could finally leave Gaza. Death is the only way out.  

Mohammad MSF patient, 36 years old.

It was the first day of the bombings. I was outside my house with my son, when a missile hit the car, less than a meter [about a yard] from us. I saw my legs were completely injured. When I looked to the side, my boy was not awake. His abdomen was open, and both his hands were gone. I started to scream. My wife and my two daughters were in the house and came running. They were also screaming. There were so many people injured around us and no ambulances in sight.  

The neighbors were taking the dead and injured in their cars, rushing to the hospital. My son went first in a car, but I think he was already dead by then. There was no space for me in that car. I was carried to another one, with three other severely injured people. I had to go in the trunk with my legs hanging out. The road to the hospital was like seeing hell on earth. Everywhere we looked was destroyed, fires all over the place, bombs kept dropping from the sky. Half of Gaza was bombed. 

It was not like any other war I’ve seen before. They were targeting civilians, there was nowhere to run. Flames were everywhere. After that, my family was completely destroyed. My wife left me—she had a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. She blamed me for the death of our son. Only one of my daughters stayed with me and now she is always standing with me, next to my hospital bed.  

It’s been one year now, and I’m still trapped in a hospital bed. I’ve been through so many surgeries and interventions that I lost count. I think I might have broken the record [for] number of surgeries. I’m smiling because there is nothing else I can do, I need to smile.  

Ashraf
*MSF staff member, 30 years old. *

May 2021 was the first time I witnessed an aggression while having a family of my own: A wife and two kids. The bombs had never been this close to us. My kids were scared and screaming. Nothing we said could calm them down. I tried lying to them, saying it was fireworks, but my daughter could tell I wasn’t speaking the truth–she said fireworks were never that loud and they had pretty lights; these ones were too loud and all she could see was fire around our building.  

I think my biggest fear was losing my family. Both me and my wife are health workers and we needed to take turns to go to the hospital and stay with the kids. While at the hospital, I was constantly worried that my phone was going to ring, and someone would tell me that my family was dead.  

MSF ambulances couldn’t move. We had to get a ride with [MSF] colleagues with no assurance that we would arrive safely to the hospital. They were targeting everything. Not even the hospital was safe. While we were in the operating theater, bombs fell around us. One was targeting a building north of the hospital, not more than 300 meters [about 328 yards] away. Another one was 100 meters [about 108 yards] down south of the hospital. The operating theater was constantly shaking, as if there was an earthquake. We were scared that we might be the next target.  

The intensity of the bomb was also something I’ve never seen in previous aggressions. It was a rain of missiles, a pouring rain. Bombs every second, everywhere. Gaza seemed to be completely on fire. On the way to the hospital, we could see the buildings in the middle of the city were completely destroyed and there were bodies on the streets. A lot of these buildings had many families.  

At the hospitals, crowds and crowds arrived with many different wounds. Once again, we were overwhelmed by the mass casualties Israel inflicted on Gaza. There was not enough blood for transfusions, we didn’t have enough ICU [intensive care unit] capacity. We just could not treat that number of people at the same time. We were just aiming to save as many lives as we could on the spot. Sepsis was everywhere, potential COVID-19 transmissions, and other communicable diseases.  

Nothing we learned from previous escalations helped us this time. We were all just waiting for our turn to die. Before, we had breaks from the bombings, humanitarian corridors. This time, there was nothing, nowhere to run to, nowhere to be safe.  

My daughter used to love to go to the beach. Before May 2021, she asked to go every day. In May 2021, however, we could see the shore being bombed from our window. It took her months to ask me again to take her to the beach. She is only 3 years old, and she can already tell the different sounds of explosions, fireworks, and missiles. That’s their childhood—it’s not a healthy childhood. God knows what kind of trauma they will carry throughout their lives.

*Names have been changed.