Yesterday I met with Husam, the publicity director of Gaza Community Mental Health Program, who picked me up at the Quaker office for a meeting at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program’s office along the sea. He and Amal, the Quaker youth program director, are neighbors, know each other well. Arriving with Husam I met again, excitedly, Marwan and Ragdha. Marwan shares an office with Husam—we’d worked together last time on a statement about the siege for their website. As I was leaving, going down the stairs, a woman also descending the stairs and called out, “Hi Skip.” “Ragdha?” I asked, “Is that you?” It is, as gracious and welcoming as I remember her from last time, visiting her in her home in Bureij refugee camp. Perhaps she’ll invite me again to visit.
Husam and I laid out a plan: photos for the various campaigns to lift the siege, for the mental health program about their work, and generally, to show people in the States the conditions in Gaza. I could be here with the program for an entire 3-month period.
Husam is lively, good hearted, energetic and innovative, he is one of my main lifelines to Gaza. He liked the idea of photographing more in the hospitals, especially the kids, and suggested Naser Pediatric in Gaza City. Traveling there, checking with the administrator, we learned we’d need a permit from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, a new rule since Hamas came to power. At the ministry, we received not only a permit for Naser but for Shifa and 3 signed blank permits for any health facility we might like to photograph.
Before leaving GCMHP I remembered Dr Mohanad El Helo who had guided me thru Shifa hospital last year. I phoned him. He seemed eager to participate and later called me to say, “I’ve gotten permits for us to photograph, let’s meet today.” After some confused planning—mainly because altho I’d like to devote my efforts purely to photography while in Gaza, I am obligated to also teach photography at the Quaker program and hadn’t prepared the lesson pan, not knowing if it would actually run—he dropped by last evening with a friend to greet me and make a plan for later.
As happened on my last 2 visits to hospitals here I was near tears going thru the hospital with my guide, Ibrahim, especially with the children. Looking into the eyes of a girl about 2 yrs old, on a ventilator, her mouth chapped, a bulge in her chest from her blood disease, her helpless condition, all that specificity embedded in the larger context of siege-induced health desperation, nearly rendered me incapable of photographing. Later, looking thru the files on my camera, I had the same reaction. Shit! Jesus! God damn it! My usual combination of outrage and sorrow catapulted to the surface.
Here are the conditions as medical staff reiterated to me yesterday (first the director, then each department head, repeating virtually the same information but usually adding something unique):
1. Virtually no referral outside the Strip for specialized examinations or treatments.
2. No spare parts or other possibilities for repair of numerous pieces of broken equipment.
3. Erratic electricity causing unforeseeable medical emergencies. The generators require expensive and diminishing fuel, whose entry is controlled by Israel.
4. Poor environmental and social conditions creating major health problems, water contamination as one example.
5. Lack of money generally, plus a division between Hamas and Fatah staff, meaning money for the first comes from Hamas which is severely limited and Fatah in Ramallah pays the Fatah supporters.
6. No access to specialized training. One doctor told me about a European consortium of medical educators who offered a 2-year series of advanced training in the Strip but because of the dangers and Israel’s prohibition of their entry this was cancelled.
7. Medicines in short supply—no curative, merely palliative.
A combination of factors causes this: the continuing international aid boycotts (money now flows to Fatah, not to Hamas-related organizations), Israeli closures, the violence caused by Israel and by internecine Palestinian fighting, and the separation between the West Bank and Gaza.
Now for some specifics if I can manage them: in the Intensive Care Unit the head doctor told me he had 6 beds but only 3 could be used. The equipment necessary for the missing one half needs repair. He showed me a small room full of broken equipment, including an electroshock device needing one simple part. Reason: parts aren’t allowed? Security, always security. Apparently many medicines are prohibited for this reason as well.
Intravenous drips are in short supply. They have to improvise, fake it. (I’m afraid I’m going to be short on details. My escort, Ibrahim, was not a medical person, he ran the library, and altho he was helpful and passionate, he did not have the same background as someone like Dr El Helo.) The cancer ward was filled with human beings dying before my eyes. No cure possible here, the death ward.
They showed me two ambulances, Ibrahim telling me every ambulance driver has been shot at. One ambulance had no emergency gear in it, the other was minimally equipped.
The pharmacy was nearly empty. Last time, trying to show the effects of the aid boycotts, visiting Shifa pharmacy proved fruitless—full shelves, even tho they then had no curative medicines. This time, shelves were nearly empty.
One deficiency in this photo series was doctors and nurses treating kids. I found this only a few times. With Mohanad later at Shifa and El Dora hospitals I hope to delve more into interactions.
I found two generators, one old and crumbling, the other larger and newer, made by Caterpillar, a US based corporation. I explained to Ibrahim Caterpillar’s role in supplying the huge D6 bulldozers that Israel uses to demolish homes and destroy olive groves uprooting.
Finished finally, exhausted mentally and spiritually, we went back to the headman’s office, the director, Dr. Anwar Khalil, a most gracious and accommodating person. I offered to send him the link to my site which will feature a collection of these photos. He wanted to see the site; the Internet was down. Later Ibrahim explained to me that one of his tasks was to set up a computer based library for advanced medical training but Israel has blocked the 5 or so ordered and shipped computers. In addition, the Internet lines are erratic, the municipality’s line is notoriously unreliable so they hook into a local Internet café.
The woes continue.
We sipped coffee, laughed about the situation, wondered when it will end. And as usual I discovered that resistance in many cases is simply day-to-day living, doing the good work, in this case trying to save lives of children.