‘Most of them died whilst they were sleeping’, Gaza doctor recalls the destruction By Amelia Smith

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For the 11 days Israeli air strikes pummelled Gaza, Dr Khamis would try to take a two-hour nap around 8am, the only time he could catch some much needed rest. Israel would carpet bomb different areas of the Strip at roughly 11pm every night when there was no electricity in most parts of Gaza city.

“The kids would cry and scream. The huge, supersonic explosions spread a lot of fear among the children,” he recalls. The darkness increased their terror – major infrastructure, including electricity and also roads and water supplies were damaged by strikes.

“At night there is nowhere to escape to. During the daytime at least they can seek refuge in another room or on the staircase.”

Dr Khamis Elessi is a Palestinian neuro-rehabilitation and pain medicine consultant who has lived in different parts of the world before returning home to Gaza. He studied and worked in the Philippines, Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv, Southampton, and Oxford in the UK. He says that of all the five previous military confrontations he has lived through this was undoubtedly the worst.

Roughly 260 people lost their lives including 68 children. “Many of them died whilst they were sleeping,” he says. “They were just crushed under the ceiling of their building.”

Dr Khamis spent his days following-up with his medical students online, that is if they had the electricity to be able to log in and listen, sometimes helping patients over the phone or tending to the wounded at Shifa Hospital. “Most of the time I tried to psychologically and spiritually support my nuclear and extended family members which totalled more than 70 individuals in one night,” he says.

On the seventh day of the escalation, the situation took a turn for the worse. The Israeli army spokesman announced that in less than one hour 160 military aeroplanes dropped 450 missiles onto the eastern and northern side of the Gaza Strip.

“Everyone inside our building was screaming and frozen inside his or her body, but there was no time for me to cry or feel scared,” he recounts. While his family were listening to these gigantic explosions, his daughter, a final year physiotherapist, fainted and collapsed with clenched mouth and cyanosed lips. Because of the fear, she hadn’t eaten for five days.

With very limited light, Dr. Khamis spent more than 30 minutes helping her regain full consciousness and tried to put two tablespoons of honey into her mouth. All the kids and his mother were crying.

“Before she fully regained consciousness one of my nieces fainted because of the commotion,” he recalls. “Fifteen minutes after I revived her a second niece fainted, then a third. I asked my wife and stepsister to do to them like what I did to the others. The time by then was 5am so I was completely exhausted and went to take a nap for 10-20 minutes.”

Dr Khamis never had the opportunity to take his nap because as he collapsed into a chair, he heard screaming from his brother’s house next door. His niece had given birth to her first baby just a few hours ago and when she heard the fresh round of bombing, she also collapsed and was convulsing.

“At that moment, I had the feeling of being completely helpless because you can’t do anything to protect your kids or family,” he says. “During wars, this is a typical day for us here in Gaza.”

For some respite, Palestinians living in Gaza would often head to the long stretch of coast on the Mediterranean to relax. However, because Israel bombed the sewage system and there is no electricity, local municipalities have been forced to push sewage into the sea. “So now the only refuge for the people to seek leisure time has been banned because the sea is now highly polluted with sewage water,” says Dr. Khamis.

There are two main parks on the Strip, but they are barely big enough for 1,000 of the 2.2 million people who live in Gaza, he added.

During the offensive, more than 2,000 residential units were totally destroyed including seven towers. Five hospitals were also hit. “Unfortunately, our healthcare system has been on the verge of collapse for the last 15 years because of the ongoing siege on Gaza from air, land and sea. But still, we have the right to live like any other citizen worldwide with free access to healthcare.”

A grainy surveillance video released last week captured the targeting of Al-Remal Clinic, Gaza’s main COVID-19 laboratory. It shows patients and staff running as smoke fills the corridors until eventually you can see nothing but a grey cloud.

Just before the war Gaza had managed to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, which were down from 1,000-1,500 a day to 200 a day. Several medics feared cases would rise again as thousands of Palestinians sought refuge in UNRWA schools and each other’s homes, but fortunately they haven’t. Dr. Khamis now thinks that Gaza has almost reached herd immunity.

Before the air strikes there was already a shortage of medicine and medical staff. Roughly 65 per cent of children under the age of five and women at childbearing age are anaemic because of the lack of fresh vegetables available and almost 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip’s total population are refugees who rely on regular food assistance from international humanitarian organisations.

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