Monday 16 September 2019

'A day of gas' in a gaza ambulance

At Gaza protests continue at the border with Israel, it is the paramedics who witness the human cost, writes Loveday Morris

Medic Hussain Al-Smairy checks on a man inside an ambulance. There were 56 injuries reported among Gaza protesters Friday, mostly from tear gas, in contrast to thousands Monday. Photo by Wissam Nassar for The Washington Post
Medic Hussain Al-Smairy checks on a man inside an ambulance. There were 56 injuries reported among Gaza protesters Friday, mostly from tear gas, in contrast to thousands Monday. Photo by Wissam Nassar for The Washington Post

Loveday Morris

The first patients don't come until 5:39pm. They crowd around the ambulance, choking on tear gas.

Israeli soldiers, just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the boundary fence, had fired a volley of hissing cans at the protesters.

Hussein al Sumeiri, a 31-year-old paramedic, hands out cotton wool treated with alcohol and saline for them to wipe their stinging eyes. One 10-year-old in jeans and a yellow T-shirt has tears streaming down his cheeks and is struggling for breath. He is brought inside the ambulance to be given oxygen. Sumeiri logs it as the day's first injury.

Friday was the quietest protest day of the past eight weeks for the paramedics in ambulance No. 414. The 'Great March of Return', as the demonstrations have been dubbed, reached their peak Monday. Then, 62 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers, according to Gaza health authorities, on the bloodiest day here since the 2014 war between Israel and the militant group Hamas, which controls the territory.

As the paramedics worked, the UN Human Rights Council was voting Friday to set up a probe of the killings in Gaza and accusing Israel of excessive use of force.

Medics like Sumeiri have witnessed the brunt of the violence. His ambulance treated more than 50 patients with gunshot wounds Monday.

The medics have been in the line of fire themselves, with one paramedic among those killed Monday. They list the names of several colleagues who have been shot.

The crowds are thin Friday, swelling only after late-afternoon prayers, when several busloads arrive. It's the first day of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, and temperatures are near a sweat-inducing 35°C.

The medics are working on empty.

At 5:45pm, the crowd runs from more tear gas, and Sumeiri gets out saline solution to wash the eyes of those who arrive. A teenager carrying a slingshot, his head wrapped in a traditional Palestinian scarf, is brought in for oxygen. Another man is carried in barely conscious.

"Close the door, close the door!" yells Sumeiri, and the ambulance pulls off to a field hospital.

After dropping its load, it receives two more men with injuries from tear gas canisters. The ambulance screams though the Gaza streets to al-Shifa hospital, its beds still stuffed with those injured at earlier protests. On previous days, these men wouldn't have been taken to the hospital. Those shot were given priority.

As sunset nears, Sumeiri watches from the ambulance as Hamas leaders come to speak to the crowd. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh says the demonstrations have "shaken the pillars" of Israel's 11-year "siege" of Gaza. Israel has accused Hamas of organizing the protests and using them as cover to carry out attacks. Israel says at least 24 of those killed Monday were militants.

Sumeiri and his driver, 31-year-old Ahmed al-Madhoun, have worked together throughout the unrest and say the use of force has been shocking. They both say it's taken a psychological toll.

"I notice when I'm talking to my neighbours or my family, I get angry easily," said Sumeiri. It doesn't compare to the stress of the 2014 war though, when he spent his days in the ambulance worrying about his family's safety as Gaza came under heavy air bombardment from Israel and Hamas fired rockets back.

He saw his wife and three children only twice during that 50-day conflict, his family temporarily moving from their home near the territory's edges because it was too dangerous. His family hasn't been at the latest demonstrations.

"No, no, no," he said. "It's not safe."

The day closes with just 56 injuries across Gaza, largely from tear gas, though some gunshot wounds are reported. A final volley of tear gas canisters lands farther back from the fence, where families have gathered in tents.

Sumeiri's brother-in-law calls to check.

"A good day," he reports back. "A day of gas."

© Washington Post

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