Un jeune garçon blessé par une frappe aérienne à Gaza serre son père dans ses bras après avoir été soigné à l'hôpital Al Shifa. 31 octobre 2023. © Mohammad Masri
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Inside Gaza: “Staying alive is only a matter of luck”

On Wednesday, December 20, 2023

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Ricardo Martínez, logistics coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has just returned from four weeks in Gaza. His account highlights the difficulties of access to drinking water, sanitation and fuel in the Gaza Strip, as well as the impact of these shortages on the health of the population.

We know that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is horrific. What did you witness personally?

Ricardo Martínez-coordinateur logistique pour MSF, revient tout juste de quatre semaines passées à Gaza. © MSF

First of all, an immediate and sustained ceasefire is needed in Gaza. But I also insist on raising the alarm about the lack of water and sanitation in Gaza. At this point, I´m fairly certain that it could in the long run, be as dangerous as the bombings, and kill as many people."

The water system isn´t working anymore – it has completely collapsed. People are being pushed to the limit, having to fight for their survival. At most, people have one litre of water per day – that’s for drinking, washing and cooking. There is only one shower for 500 people. The ones able to have showers are considered lucky. In the south of Gaza, our teams are distributing 50 to 60 cubic meters of water a day, but this is only a drop in the ocean.

In the south of Gaza, places are so overcrowded that it feels like you are in a packed football stadium. With so many people using the same few toilets, and with no fuel for pumping the water, I´ve seen sewage flowing into the streets where vendors are working, where children are playing and splashing in the filthy black water. You can only imagine the impact on people’s health.

Whatever people want to do, they have to plan it ahead of time: you must think, plan and organise, and then you will find out if you are lucky or not. You want to go to the toilet? When and where do you go when there are hundreds of people queueing for one toilet? I don´t think I need to go into further details of how people are getting by.”

Do people in Gaza have fuel or electricity?

“In some places, there is no fuel or electricity. It´s impacting everything. Without fuel, the grinding mills are not working, so nobody has wheat – no wheat, no food. Trucks coming from Egypt are offloading aid to trucks in Gaza, but without fuel these trucks are unable to move and distribute the aid. 

We have seen the devastating loss of life caused by the lack of fuel in hospitals, with generators not working and doctors unable to save people´s lives. Hospitals have become villages, with people living in corridors.”

© Mohammed ABED

Israel forces have repeatedly ordered people to evacuate locations within Gaza. On 3 December, MSF had to close its clinic in the southern city of Khan Younis after an order to evacuate the area. Can you describe what happened? 

“The Israeli forces announce evacuation orders through a military website that they launched on 1 December. One day an area on the map will be declared a ‘red zone’ – meaning that it will be targeted. Let´s keep in mind that there is barely any electricity in Gaza, meaning no internet. How can you find out if you have to leave?

We knew it was just a matter of time before the area we were working in would receive an evacuation order. We had discussed it just two or three days earlier. Then, on 3 December, we were forced to close our clinic and leave Khan Younis. That morning, I was in charge of the logistics to get us a few kilometers towards the west. For me, this was the most painful day I experienced during my time in Gaza.

I started packing the cars, taking care of the logistics and making sure that everything was ready. 

It was heartbreaking: running away and having to look at Palestinian colleagues and neighbours who had been with us all the time, helping us with everything, and knowing that most probably I would never see them again. There was no time to thank them all for the good things they had done for us. To tell the truth, I was ashamed. 

But in reality, no place is safe in Gaza. I remember revisiting a place with my colleague Omar, a Palestinian logistics supervisor, that had been destroyed since our visit the previous day. He said to me: “Look at this, Ricardo, we were just here yesterday and look at the rubble now.” Who could have told us not to go there because it would be bombed? No one. 

Staying alive is only a matter of luck. 

This was one of six different places that were destroyed just after we had visited them – six places demolished into rubble. Schools: gone. Offices: gone. Private houses: gone. Water plants: gone.”

Photos de l'unité de chirurgie reconstructive des membres de l'hôpital Al-Awda, dans le nord de Gaza, après la frappe du 21 novembre 2023 qui a tué trois médecins, dont deux membres du personnel de MSF, et blessé de nombreuses autres personnes. MSF a commencé à travailler à l'hôpital Al-Awda en 2018, en proposant de la chirurgie reconstructive pour les adultes et de la chirurgie traumatologique pour les enfants. © MSF

What was the reaction of people in Gaza to the temporary truce that took place from 24 to 30 November? 

“I remember very well when the pause from bombing started. That morning, the minute the clock turned seven, I started to hear chanting and singing and cheers of joy. That day I finally cried; I cried because I saw them so happy. But that only lasted for a few short days. The truce ended at 7 pm, and already by 7.03 all hell was unleashed again.

For a short period, people were able to visit their families. This was the most important thing for everyone. Some went to the north of Gaza and took the time to spend several days with their loved ones.

At the same time, it wasn’t completely over: others took the time as an opportunity to bury the dead. Many went to collect the corpses of people whose bodies were rotting in the streets – some for almost two months. Can you imagine the smell and the pain?”

MSF teams are providing emergency medical care and donating medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in Gaza. Can you describe how MSF is managing to provide aid in these circumstances?

“When I arrived in Gaza, it became very clear that whatever impact we are having is solely thanks to our dedicated Palestinian staff. Since day one they have been doing everything to keep saving lives. They’re truly bringing hope in the middle of a nightmare.

Most of our staff have been displaced from their homes and have lost loved ones. Tragically, the brutality happening now isn’t new to them – they’ve experienced it before. 

They know they could die at any given moment but they still greet you each morning with a smile. And when you ask how they are, they reply: ‘I’m okay, I´m still alive.’

I will never forget when we were still working in our clinic in Khan Younis. I would wake at 6 am and go to the clinic. Each morning, our staff member Ishaq would open the door and greet me with a huge smile on his face. I would apologise for waking him up but he would reassure me: ‘No, no, Ricardo, I woke up half an hour ago. Welcome! I have been waiting for you.’ 

Like Ishaq, many of our staff members are making sure that those of us who come from outside Gaza have everything we need, from helping us charge our torches to having food and feeling welcomed. They care not only for their patients, but for everyone around them. They will tell you: ‘I want to help you – I must help you – because I want to help my people.’

At the same time, they keep asking: ‘Why? What did we do to deserve this punishment? Why has the world forgotten us?’”

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