Gaza paramedic haunted by daily carnage, anxiety for his family

‘When [family members] see me on live TV carrying bodies, at least they know I’m alive,’ says rescuer

Gaza paramedics have worked grueling 24-hour shifts since the Israeli airstrikes began.
Wissam Nassar / Al Jazeera

Ibrahim Abuelkas is eight hours into his 24-hour shift, and every minute is filled with new risks. Suddenly, the 35-year-old gets a signal from his colleague Saed Zaineddin — the emergency phone call operator — and the red and white ambulance is off again.

There is not much talking on the way to the location, as Abuelkas says he is "entering the unknown." Abuelkas and his driver use body language and gestures more than words. Within a few minutes, they are driving side-by-side with another ambulance, also headed to the city's al-Zaytoun neighborhood.

Abuelkas does not know what exactly to expect when he steps out of the van. The moment he arrives, people run towards him, screaming, "Ambulance, come here, come here!" The people here expect another Israeli airstrike to hit at any minute, and they are frantically trying to evacuate the women and children.

The ambulance driver quickly navigates through the crowd, lights flashing, to assist a number of residents that have been injured by an Israeli bomb. "Usually we travel in ambulance pairs to the same location to assist as much as possible," says Abuelkas, as the ambulance sirens wail.

The injured are helped into the back of the ambulance, which then rushes towards the al-Shifa hospital. The moment it arrives, the Operational Rescue Team opens the ambulance doors to offload the patients, who are taken on stretchers to reception and triage.

The workers clean the ambulance, check that supplies are stocked, and take a brief rest with other ambulance crews until the next call comes in. Then, it's time to move again, this time to another part of Gaza.

Since the shelling of Gaza began on July 8, close to 200 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,400 wounded. Attempts at an Egypt-brokered cease-fire collapsed Tuesday, with the resumption of Israeli strikes and continued Hamas rockets. With fresh raids, comes the prospect of further casualties.

Ambulance drivers in Gaza have been working nonstop in extremely difficult conditions throughout the Israeli military offensive. According to the United Nations, one doctor has been killed and 19 medical staff have been injured in Gaza since July 7, while two hospitals, four clinics, one treatment center, and four ambulances have sustained damage in Israeli airstrikes.

The emotional impact has also taken a toll on medical workers in the besieged coastal enclave. Abuelkas told Al Jazeera that one of the worst calls he responded to was to help the al-Batsh family; 18 members of the same family were killed by an Israeli missile in Gaza City on Saturday.

When he got to the site of the bombing, he didn’t know what he would find. At the house, he met women, children and old men; everyone was either screaming, crying or silent, in shock. He said the most difficult part was collecting dismembered body parts to identify the dead and prepare them for burial.

"This was a terrible, emotional mission. We found all types of injuries — light [and] medium to critical, body parts blown off, amputated limbs, and other dead bodies," he says.

For many days during the Israeli assault, the roads in Gaza City were empty, as residents hid indoors. "I have been afraid of bombing, but the fear of the unknown haunts me," Abuelkas says, while holding a Quran and reciting prayers in the lulls between calls.

Abuelkas started this job in 2008. While he says his first months on the job were challenging, his colleagues now say he has become more experienced, and he is able to deal with more. He witnessed three major Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip; Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012; and the current escalation in July 2014.

He says he saw a difference between the three wars: "In 2008 we saw missiles split flesh into chunks, missiles that burned into the whole body and amputated limbs clean off, like a surgeon. Compared with today’s attack, [when] we mostly find missiles that dissolve flesh into even smaller scraps. It’s more violent, if that’s possible."

Attending to Gaza's injured isn't the only thing on Abuelkas' mind, however. When he's working, his thoughts inevitably turn to his own family, and his five children — the eldest is 12, and the youngest is only one. His family lives in al-Zaytoun, one of the worst hit areas in the recent Israeli bombing.

As much as he worries about his wife and children, they also worry about him. "When they see me on live TV carrying bodies, at least they know I’m alive," he says, as his operator informs him of another air strike and more casualties.

Finally, after 24 hours rushing between tragedies, Abuelkas' shift ends. "At least then, I know [that] whatever happens, I’m with my family."

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