- 13 May 21
A feeling of growing despair is being widely felt across the world, as the Israeli army/IDF continues to bomb Gaza, and facilitate violent settler take-over of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah. But the truth is that we've been here before – as human rights campaigner Caoimhe Butterly recalls.
The night footage, filmed on a phone, lasts for less than 20 seconds, the shaky frame capturing a residential neighbourhood in Gaza. As cries of distress are heard off-screen, the sky lights up, momentarily incandescent before the force of the explosions that follow is heard, a staccato of sound.
The video is from last night, but resembles the many aerial bombardments that have preceded it, the fear of those off-camera audible, both familiar and distinct. The sense of isolation, and overwhelm, remains a constant.
Over a decade ago, I was in the back of an ambulance in the same part of Northern Gaza, speeding down an unpaved road through lush agricultural fields. Dawn was breaking and the sky was streaked with the smoke from white phosphorous shells – raining down around those who had begun to evacuate their homes.
We reached those who had called us, three family members writhing in pain, smouldering phosphorous burns on their chests, arms and legs. As we prepared to evacuate them and others to the nearest hospital, the bombardment by the Israeli army intensified, explosions echoing increasingly closer to the buffer zone.
Around us, those fleeing the rural community carried children, in arms and on hips, many still in their pyjamas. Whatever white pieces of fabric that had been available as they left – a pillowcase, a white headscarf, a tea towel – were held up as fragile, hoped-for protection as they walked further inland.
The back of the ambulance was full, and we were unable to close the rear doors before moving. As we were in motion, a father ran behind us, lifting his young daughter into the air and passing her to a neighbour, in the ambulance with us.
Keep her safe, he said.
A Small Voice Calling for Her Father
In an article this week, a Palestinian-Lebanese-American writer, Mary Turfah, wrote about rising death tolls, and how through them, the ‘singularity of life collapses into anonymity’. She spoke of how the ‘reality of each loss is each time and for each person specific, and it is heart-breaking and it is unforgettable’.
In 2009, during Cast Lead, over the course of 22 days more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, over 300 of them children. The ambulances that we rode on, working alongside profoundly brave Palestinian paramedic colleagues, responded to the aftermath of many of those bombings. We transported the wounded, and dug through the rubble of buildings and houses to recover the dead. Often those killed were entire families.
We dug, in the hope of finding survivors, holding torches in our mouths, surrounded by torn electricity lines, slabs of concrete, broken pipes gushing water into the streets.
As we did so, we would lift the bodies of children from the rubble first. They were often easier to locate, a brightly coloured hair-clasp or rainbow knitted sweater evident beneath the debris, their still faces covered with dust, their small limbs twisted into unnatural positions.
We responded to missile attacks, and what followed them, shattered bodies unidentifiable, even the most war-experienced paramedics amongst us reeling from the witness, from the relentless, grief-filled horror.
We continued to work in the weeks after Israeli drones began to target ambulances and paramedics. Our Palestinian colleagues buried their friends and sat with each other in the pauses in the bombing, arms around each-others shoulders. Holding too, psychologically, the possibility of their own injury or death, the awareness of our collective mortality.
One night, while we waited at the station, drinking sage tea, we received a call from a home in the Shujaiya neighbourhood. The area was almost deserted, many families having fled, as Israeli tanks and soldiers took up position, other residents silent in the dark, cold confines of their homes, crouching from room to room to avoid sniper fire through their windows.
We arrived to the sound of drones above us, the front lights of the ambulances spotlighting devastation. Those operating the drones were by then using a ‘double-tap’ method, which caused further casualties amongst people – women and men – who would rush to respond to those injured by the first missile. We approached the bodies on the ground with our hands above our heads, breath constricted in our throats, waiting for the next explosion.
They, four members of an extended family, had ventured out of their home in search of food provisions. Two plastic bags of bread lay close to one of their lifeless bodies. They had arrived at the door of their house when they were targeted, the key still in the lock of a steel door mangled by the force of the explosion. Inside we could hear keening and muffled crying, a small voice calling for her father.
We gathered her father’s shattered body, and those of her uncles, into body bags before we forced open the door. We carried the children to the ambulance, trying to shield their vision with our chests, their bodies rigid with shock. I held the hand of one of their mothers, Reem, as we exited her home, grief pulsing through her touch. Her youngest daughter, Fidaa, crawled into my lap in the back of the ambulance as we drove back to Gaza city, her small body shaking the whole way.
Holding Firmly to Memories of Home
Today a Palestinian translator and writer in Gaza, tweets about trauma, saying that the onslaught is beyond what their nervous systems can endure. His partner, Najla, a humanitarian worker, posts about their daughters, and all children in Gaza tonight – of their need to protect them, of the knowledge that they can’t.
The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme speaks of the impacts of a context in which there is no Post to the PTSD. The recurring anxiety, nightmares, self-harm, withdrawal and expressions of acute distress amongst children are often more visible than those experienced by adults. But trauma is collectively experienced, during this onslaught and the ones that preceded it, through the constancy of injustice. Nervous systems flooded with adrenalin and cortisol, tonight and in the nights to come, perhaps inter-generationally. No refuge for vulnerable human bodies, or psyches. No meaning to be made from massacre.
Speaking to friends there now, I sit in the silent minutes after we hang up, conscious of how exposed those trapped in Gaza, those insisting on life lived with dignity in Gaza, are. Parents deciding that their families will all sleep in the same room, so if a bomb hits their home, no one is left alone, alive in the solitude of their grief.
I listen to paramedic friends who, with dry humour and fatalism, continue to drive the ambulances that may be targeted again in the nights to come. Who, despite that risk, continue to respond to the wounded with deep commitment, courage and care.
I speak with friends in the diaspora, those studying abroad, those who left and can’t get back, those who wait with breath held for the call after each new bombardment, replaying online video clips over and over again, listening to the cries of distress off-camera. Holding firmly to their other memories – of home, community, the sea, times of happiness, beauty and tenacious bravery, too.
We hold the heaviness of so much death, and hope for the life that continues, within and far beyond, survival.
• Caoimhe Butterly is a human rights campaigner and trainee psychotherapist who has worked as a volunteer EMT in Gaza and the West Bank)
Image credit: Mohammed Zaanoun, ActiveStills.org