GAZA CITY // Tareq Dardas remains haunted by the night he, three other doctors, eight nurses and 15 patients thought might be their last. "You can't imagine what a horrible night that was," said the general practitioner, who trained eight years in Pakistan and now works at Gaza's Al Wafa Hospital. "I've never been so miserable." Dr Dardas and his colleagues found themselves pinned down in their hospital, east of Gaza City and near the Israeli border, on the night of Jan 15 by heavy Israeli bombardment for which Dr Dardas said he could think of no explanation. No one was killed or injured in the bombardment, but the hospital sustained significant damage and staff had to evacuate the hospital by carrying patients out in bed sheets when ambulances finally arrived after 10am the next day.
Behind them they left a building with all its windows shattered and a gaping hole in one wall on the second floor, caused by what staff believe was a tank shell. The shell struck just where the large metal letters in the word 'hospital' on that side of the building were hung, leaving only the last three. Inside, medical equipment worth US$250,000 (Dh918,000) was destroyed. It is the kind of damage the overstretched medical services in Gaza could do without. Al Wafa Hospital, built with donations from EU countries and USAID among others, is the only medical centre in the Gaza Strip that specialises in the rehabilitation of patients with physical disabilities, including stroke victims, patients suffering spinal cord injuries and amputees.
With only 59 beds, Al Wafa already had enough on its plate. But Israel's 22-day attack on Gaza has created an even bigger problem. According to Muwaiya Hassanein, the chief of Gaza's emergency services, about 13 per cent of the nearly 4,500 people injured in Israel's brutal campaign will suffer lasting disabilities, from visual or hearing impairments to physical disabilities as a result of head or spinal cord injuries.
Of these, Mr Hassanein said, 151 patients have needed amputations, 32 of them of both upper and lower limbs. "I think we are going to have to put two patients in each bed," said Dr Dardas with a weak smile. "Even on good days, our facilities need improvement. There is a lack of everything. Most importantly we need more rehabilitation centres like this." The hospital is still not fully operational four weeks after the offensive. In the largely empty wards, a few patients had, however, filtered back to continue treatment. Of the expected new arrivals, many are abroad receiving treatment and Dr Dardas is bracing himself for their return.
Those now at Al Wafa, like Yahiya Abu Seif, 21, have started their rehabilitation. Mr Abu Seif is bedridden for life after suffering brain damage during the attacks. One leg had to be amputated and his left side is paralysed. Mr Abu Seif had been attending prayers in a Jabalya mosque on Jan 1 when a missile struck the entrance just as he was leaving. Seventeen people were killed in the attack. Shrapnel lodged in Mr Abu Seif's brain, and his life was changed forever.
He spoke slowly but lucidly about his experience, which he remembered right until the missile struck. "I will have to change my life now but I am hopeful about the future," he said. He had been attending university and studying to become a teacher. He said he still hoped to teach, but acknowledged that it will not be easy. As for why the mosque had been targeted during the Israeli air campaign in the first week of the offensive, he had no answer.
"This was a war against Islam, against Muslims. I can't think of any other explanation." Next to his bed, his older brother, Ibrahim Abu Seif, 29, looked on with concern. "He is a strong character. He always knew what he wanted from his life; he was always independent. But now he will have to rely on us." Ibrahim Abu Seif was there to attend the rehabilitation programme, which also trains relatives and friends to look after disabled patients. It is necessary, Dr Dardas said, in a culture where those with disabilities are often ostracised.
But in the dire straits of the Gaza Strip, where 80 per cent of Gazans live in poverty, most disabled people face a difficult future. Dr Dardas said he had hope for Yahiya Abu Seif, because he was educated and might be able to secure a government job. In another room, Maher Habashi, 24, faces a more uncertain fate. Unemployed, newly-wed and having finished only high school, Mr Habashi had hoped to start his own tailoring business. But on the night of Jan 15, in the same neighbourhood as the Al Wafa Hospital and during the same bombardment, Mr Habashi lost his uncle, a friend and his left leg.
Now, he said, "I just want to live a life." His eldest brother Mahmoud, 33, said he was devastated and fearful of a future in which he would be the only breadwinner of five brothers. "I am overwhelmed. Our father died recently, and I am the only one left to look after the family. I had hoped Maher could help, but now we are the ones who have to help him." The bombardment that took Mr Habashi's leg and blew a hole in the wall of the hospital came only two days before Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire and began withdrawing troops from Gaza. Until then, Dr Dardas said, the staff at Al Wafa had counted themselves lucky that the hospital, so close to Israeli armour, had escaped any damage.
"I guess, in fact, we were unlucky." firstname.lastname@example.org