- 03 Nov 23
"Videos circulate of children shaking uncontrollably, or still and silent with shock, filmed in barely functioning hospitals. Children wounded, children with life-altering injuries, children who are the sole, bereft survivors of families still beneath the rubble.” This inhumanity must end. Gaza: if not now, when?
Sitting on the ground in a hospital in Gaza, a young mother cradles the body of her child. Separated by a white shroud wrapped around their small body, she kisses the cloth and face beneath before burial – whispering blessings, whispering love.
Continents away, at Grand Central Station in New York, thousands of people gather, young and older. They chant together against an unfolding genocide, their voices crescendo-ing, as they affirm: ‘Never Again for Anyone’.
Before the arrests of over 400 mainly Jewish-American activists begin – united in their dissent, many of them descendant from Holocaust survivors – an 81-year old professor is interviewed as she sits on the ground, surrounded by song and prayers for ceasefire.
She reflects on faith-based traditions of justice and freedom, of the need to bear witness – saying “If not now, right now – then when?”
Areej Kaoud, a Palestinian poet and artist writes, “My chest feels tight. My organs feel inflated. I see my heartbeats in my eyes. I hear my bones. I feel my lungs… If you’re feeling this, you’re not alone. Your organs are summoning a power from within, bigger than ever. Don’t underestimate your voice. We are present. We are many.”
Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American historian, speaks of a paradigm shift, that “The idea that you can coop up 5 million people, put them behind walls, tighten the siege on them, use an eyedropper to allow them some food, some water, some electricity, that idea has exploded as a result of the horrific events of the past days.”
Noi Katsman, a sibling of Hayim Katsman, killed on October the 7th, holds clarity within grief on the day of his funeral. They speak of their brother’s commitment to social justice, that the “deaths and pain” of Israeli families should not be used “to cause the death and pain of other people or other families” – that the “only way forward is freedom and equal rights.”
The family of Vivien Silver, and a number of others, voice similar words of steady courage as they mourn or search for their loved ones – killed in homes, gardens, a festival, cars, a bus stop. Killed while sheltering their families with their bodies.
The integrity of their voices drowned out by the drums of war, by a national political spectrum in Tel Aviv, in its majority that is calling for vengeance, for ethnic cleansing, some openly calling for genocide.
As the death toll mounts, a president of the US, with one comment, dangerously mainstreams dehumanisation, echoed by other politicians as they fuel denial. Almost 10,000 Palestinian casualties – over 3,000 children – killed so far, over the past 3 weeks – doubted and diminished, their lives rendered ever more expendable. Their deaths normalised. Hundreds of large extended families wiped out in Gaza, removed from the civil register as the profit margins of weapons manufacturers soar.
Violence seeps into the streets further away – into the body of a 6-year old Palestinian-American child, stabbed 26 times in his Chicago home as his mother tries to shield him with her body. Prejudice gains momentum in Dagestan and elsewhere, antisemitism and a grim glimpse of how badly things could further spiral.
No Refuge Present
Sealed off from the regional and global geo-politic, from the speeches and statements, across a militarised wall in Gaza, people are fleeing. Beyond the massing of hundreds of tanks, Palestinian families from farms and camps in the lush agricultural lands of North Gaza try to evacuate to the arid South. The makeshift camps of UN tents painfully reminiscent of those that heralded the past decades of exile and dispossession.
The chests, and organs, lungs and heartbeats, of those fleeing – and those of friends, colleagues, neighbours, strangers already displaced – are achingly vulnerable. No refuge is present from the crushing impact of bombs rained down on homes, schools, medical facilities, mosques, churches, markets, evacuation convoys, ambulances, on media centres and on journalists. Rained down on densely populated refugee camps.
We speak to paramedic friends, worked alongside during other massacres – our teachers, our mentors – on the day after four more paramedics are killed. Targeted as they responded to those wounded and dead, in the North and East – as they continue to work under siege.
I knew three of them – tender, committed, courageous rescuers. They reminded us to breathe amidst the grief, as we dug out the bodies of families from the rubble of homes in 2009. We would lift out the bodies of the children first, often easier to locate, coloured hair-clasps or rainbow sweaters evident amidst the debris, their still faces covered with dust, mud matted in their hair, limbs twisted into unnatural positions. Each small body an indictment of a world that failed them.
Khalil, Yousri and Ahmed are dead on arrival at Al Shifa hospital. A video circulates of other paramedics trying desperately to resuscitate Hatem on a stretcher, weeping when they can’t, their arms around each other’s shoulders. A colleague mourned before they get back into their ambulances, sleep-deprived and worn, to respond to unending crisis. The families of those dead now homeless – scattered and displaced, unable to hold the community rituals around grief that can bring moments of solace within the devastation.
A psychiatrist in Gaza, Dr Mustafa ElMasri, tweets when electricity allows, his missives increasingly urgent, “To all my friends who invite me for interviews about the mental health of people under a genocide, I respect and understand your good intentions. But shouldn’t we put that effort in saving the bodies that hold these minds?”
The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme speaks, as they have during other onslaughts, of there being no Post to the PTSD. Children sheltering in schools in the South that could also be targeted experience the anxiety, nightmares and expressions of acute distress that have defined too many childhoods spent under siege.
Videos circulate of children shaking uncontrollably, or still and silent with shock, filmed in barely functioning hospitals. Children wounded, children with life-altering injuries, children who are the sole, bereft survivors of families still beneath the rubble.
Nervous systems flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, no respite from the aural architecture of war, no meaning in massacre.
Never the Gun Before the Child
On the night that Wael Dahdouh’s family is killed – his kind, hospitable, tight-knit family – he identifies their bodies in the hospital morgue, live on Al Jazeera. It is his quiet dignity that wounds the most, as I watch his anguish – like millions of viewers across the world – through the screen of my phone.
I message with a Palestinian therapist friend from the West Bank – so close and so far – after she watches the same footage. Some things, she says, just sink into the pores of one’s being. Some atrocities, in their singularity, speak to all the suffering.
That suffering seems omnipresent – inescapable, relentless, overwhelming. The grief is all absorbing – the details of lives lost, their bright young faces.
The density of the suffering demands a heart-space broad enough to hold the singularity of each life, of each absence – inviting moral consistency, though not equivalency, within a context of violently asymmetrical power.
Consistency that recognises, even as one death toll quickly eclipses the other, that the anguish of mourning mothers mirrors itself in all its tragedy and intimacy, beyond walls and borders. That the visceral loss of children is a journey without conclusion, a compass for which is offered: “Side with the child over the gun, every single time, no matter whose gun and no matter whose child.”
And when all the pain and trauma has been fully seen and honoured, to recognise our responsibility, now more than ever, to mobilise for the living in Gaza. A mobilisation, and response, which holds the gravitas of the layers of inter-generational injustice, Occupation and systemic denial of rights so long endured by Palestinians.
A mobilisation, globally, to hold onto our collective humanity – through which the slogan and sentiment Not In Our Names expands to encompass us all.
Because through doing so, we can work to embody active solidarity. With parents in Gaza, holding their children close, trying to keep them safe; with paramedics on the daily frontlines of response; with families awake at night, waiting for the hundreds of bombs launched each night on their communities, their homes, their precious lives.
Solidarity which responds to the urgency of a humanitarian crisis in which scarcity, malnutrition and precarity has already defined the past two decades of suffocating siege. Solidarity with those who cannot evacuate, or who will not leave home once again, as their ancestors did, to live in the inter-generational limbo of refugee camps; with those whose collective heartbeats beat louder than the war-drums.
With those whom, despite everything, despite each new loss, hopes for lives lived with freedom remain.
• Caoimhe Butterly is a human rights campaigner and psychosocial & trauma worker. She spent years working as a medical volunteer on Palestinian ambulances in Gaza & Jenin.