Meet Some Rescuers
2012: A Day in the Life of Rescuer Ibrahim Abu Al Qas, Gaza, Palestine
Ibrahim Abu Al Qas (34) has been working with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society for seven years. In this account he describes his motivation for being part of the ambulance team, with the intent to rescue others in often potentially very dangerous situations. He also shares one of his latest experiences in the ambulance.
A coward, a journalist and an ambulance worker
“I used to be a coward, really I was afraid of just about everything. It was so bad that I asked my uncle, who is a psychologist what to do about it. He told me I had to immerse myself in fear to get rid of it. So I became a journalist. I didn’t find the job particularly frightening, but I continued it anyway.
The day the twin towers got attacked in New York, that day pushed me towards ambulance work. That very same day, in 2001, there were bombings in Saraja, which is just around the corner from my office. I went there and saw people running away, escaping the scene. I just kept thinking: “Why are they fleeing? We should save those that are still inside, save the souls of the people that are trapped in the building.” As a journalist, I was after words, but then I realized; we have to save the lives first and catch the story after.
This feeling stayed with me. I continued my job as a journalist, but started taking up trainings to become part of the ambulance team. In 2005 I started working with the ambulance and now it’s my daily life. Not all days are the same, but I’ll give you an example of what happened last week on July 12th 2012.
Permission to rescue?
We were called in to Shija’ija, into the industrial area close to the border, where the Israeli army had attacked with a missile and people were reported injured. A work vehicle with three employees of the governmental electricity company inside was hit. They were mending power lines. They had wrapped up their work and were about to drive off when they were attacked. Isn’t it a fact now that all civilians are considered terrorists by the Israeli army?
The normal process is that we ask the International Red Cross for “coordination” when we’re approaching the Israeli border by any less than 1500 metres. They ask the Israeli military permission for us to go closer. (Editor’s note: under international law Red Crescent medics should be able to freely approach the injured without any external co-ordination and not be fired upon.) The person who was badly injured was at 2000 metres. We all wanted to go there, because we knew the man was badly burned, but still alive. As soon as we got closer, the soldiers started firing at us. Finally, we called the Red Cross to help us. They replied that as we were at 2000 metres, there was no need for coordination. “Go by yourselves and take care”, was their answer. This is our work, it’s what we need to do to save someone. But the tanks started moving in on us and kept on shooting.
We use signs to communicate with the Israeli army. For example: have all our lights switched on, honk, open the side door to show that inside we only have ourselves and our equipment. Sometimes we walk next to the ambulance while only the driver remains inside, so the Israeli soldiers can see that we’re only medical personnel.
If they decrease the shooting, we can move closer. If they start shooting more incessantly, it means they don’t want us to draw closer.
We’ve noticed that if someone is critically injured, but still alive, it takes longer for us to be allowed to pass than when someone is only moderately injured. This is exactly what happened last week. We kept on receiving calls “he’s still alive, he’s not dead!”. The soldiers must have noticed he was about to die and let us pass. It took us exactly 17 minutes from arrival to the spot until being able to access the injured! 17 minutes. On the way to the hospital the man collapsed.
Cooping with stress
Our work as ambulance workers is like the work of ambulance workers around the world. I feel strongly for those who are being humiliated and that is why I do my job. We feel everything when we are out there, but in our country, in our job, we have to keep a distance between our work and and our personal life, just to survive.
Same day, round II: another fatality
Two hours later after the first incident, we received a message that an Israeli F16 targetted a training site of a resistance group in Tunis Al-Khadra, in the Zaitoun area in the east of Gaza City. People were sure that someone was still inside and probably injured. We went in the training site with the ambulance to retrieve the injured. (Editor’s note: when a fighter is injured, under international law he becomes “out of combat” and has same the right to be rescued the same as a civilian.) While we were in there, another bomb hit the adjacent farmland. The danger had just doubled. We hadn’t found the injured person or people yet and were puzzled about what we should do. Why did they bomb the farmland and not the training site? Will there be more bombing?
We had two options: go on to try and save the injured person, or to withdraw and then have an argument with the neigbours who would tell us we are not doing our jobs properly. Finally, we went ahead, because the people nearby were confident the person was still alive.
Normally, we’re three in the ambulance, but this time it was just me and the driver, so one of the neigbours volunteered to help carry the person into the ambulance. I told the driver to turn and be prepared to leave as soon as something happened. At least one of us would be in safety, while the others could face their fate.
I reached the injured man. He was dead, completely. People kept phoning the local man that was helping me, asking what was going on. I heard him utter the name of the martyred man: Mahmoud il Higi. I realised he had the same family name as the ambulance driver.
We returned with the dead body to the ambulance. I couldn’t tell the driver his relative was dead. I wanted to avoid another shock in that stressful situation. So I told him: “Take a deep breath. The man has the same family name as you, but wait before panicking. We’ll see what they can do for him in Al Shifa hospital.”
Interview by Inge Neefs – Inge is a Belgian solidarity activist who was been working in Gaza over the past two years; she is currently writing a book about Gaza too. Thank you to Tilde De Wandel for the photo of Ibrahim.
2009: A Red Crescent medic writes from Gaza City
(Originally posted at TalestoTell)
This space is for Palestinians to speak for themselves, which they so often do with a hope and a vision that I wonder if I could imitate in their position. Like the taxi driver today (whose friend was killed in the recent attacks) who was explaining to me that there are lots of good Israeli folks who didn’t want to attack Gaza. He said he had many Israeli friends (from before Ariel Sharon made the smart move of legislating to isolate the two countries from each other as much as possible) who phoned him through the strikes to see if there was anything they could do.
Many Palestinians are confident in English; these are not translations by me but the writers’ own words.
The other evening when I was spending some hours with Gaza City ambulance night shift, after I practiced inserting a cannula in his arm and made him bleed everywhere, medic A gave me this piece of writing…
by A, Emergency Medical Technician (10 years)
In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
It was December 27th 2009 when Gaza Strip was subjected to a massive air attack by the Israeli air force. A week later, the Israelis started a massive ground offensive. During those repulsive and dreadful days they destroyed all green fields, destroyed residential areas, and spread havoc all over the place.
After that mad war that claimed the lives of about 1400 people and injured other thousands, it was horrendous to anyone to see the size of the huge ruin and destruction in the areas where the Israeli forces entered. For 23 days life was unbelieveably horrible. It was one of the worst times that I witnessed in my entire life. It was frightening, horrible, and ugly in all possible ways.
Mass murder is a crime under international law. It was committed by the Israeli forces in Gaza. They massacred hundreds of women and children, and even the aged and handicapped people lost under the rubble of their homes.
The Israeli soldiers executed a number of men, women, and children right away in the field, and in front of their families, without any questioning or accusation, but simply because they were Palestinians.
I think the foreign medical teams who arrived at Gaza via Rafah border crossing to support the Palestinian people in their plight, also expressed their shock due to what they saw in Gaza hospitals.
Wounds and injuries resulting from the very strange kind of weapons surprised everyone, even doctors who served in civil war areas in Rwanda, Africa. Israel committed genocide against the Palestinians.
If I were not an eyewitness, I would not have believed the horrible scenes of dead people, and the massive number of the injured! I rushed to the hospital to help my colleagues at nursing. I went through really unusual experiences that I never thought about before. The most horrible scene was that of the injured people from the white phosphorous bombs dropped from the air at the Palestinian residential areas. They destroyed any body part they touched.
It was so sad that I lost fourteen of my colleages during the war; most of them were killed while they were trying to save the lives of others. I am still unable to believe that they are gone forever.
By the end of the war, I started having bad dreams and nightmares. I still have very bad memories that I may need long years to heal from, and this is also the situation of many other colleagues like myself.