My friend Mohammed is a hero

My friend Mohammed lives in Il Tufa district in northeastern Gaza City. Il Tufa was scarred and crumbling at the edges even before the Israelis bombed most of it to pieces during their 22-day ‘war’ against the people of Gaza. During the Israeli onslaught Palestinian families fled Il Tufa en masse, seeking refuge with relatives in safer parts of Gaza City, or UN-run schools. But Mohammed and his family stayed put.

Many Palestinians spent the entire period inside their homes. For three weeks, Gazan friends called me every day, saying they could not leave their homes because they were terrified they would be blown to pieces with their kids if they stepped outside their front doors.

Hundreds were subsequently killed in their own living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, which is one of the reasons medical personnel are now digging so many partly decomposed bodies from the rubble of Gaza. Some did take the risk of moving outside, to buy food or search for water, but only in the mornings, when there was sometimes a brief despite from the relentless Israeli bombing and shelling: but by mid-afternoon the streets of Gaza City were deserted once more, especially in districts like Il Tufa, or neighbouring Al Zaytoun, which were brutally targeted by the Israelis.   

After being confined indoors for a week, Mohammed, who trained as a doctor in Turkey, offered his services to a local clinic in Al Zaytoun. ‘I want to help the people in my city who are sick and injured,’ he told me. So he left his house at 7am every morning, and walked from Il Tufa to Zaytoun, a distance of about a kilometre, and worked as a volunteer medical officer, tending to locals who’d been injured. He said the streets he walked were ruined and empty. In the afternoons, he walked back home to Il Tufa again.

‘Sometimes the clinic is very busy,’ he told me, ‘but many people are too scared to leave their homes and come to the clinic - so they call me, and after work I go to visit them in their homes.’ Like doctors across Gaza, he tended to patients with horrific injuries, including horrific burns from bombs which the Israeli military has now admitted contained white phosphorus - a chemical that burns down to the human bone - that they deployed across the Gaza Strip in terrifying quantities. I spoke to Mohammed almost every day during the Israeli onslaught. He always sounded weary on the phone, but was adamant he was going to carry on working - and he did.

When the ceasefire was announced on 18 January, I called him to celebrate the good news. He was already out on the streets. ‘The war is over! We have ceasefire!’ he shouted down the phone, before telling me that he was out helping local medical personnel dig up bodies from underneath the rubble. Now he has just started working with a local Palestinian medical NGO, and he’s also applying to study abroad later this year, so he can specialize in infectious diseases. ‘I want to study to be a specialist, and then I am coming back home to work with the people,’ he says.   

Gaza is quiet right now - though yesterday Hamas held a rally, perversely claiming victory against Israel despite the fact that at least 1,300 Palestinians, including almost 900 civilians, were killed in Gaza in just three weeks. And no-one knows what will happen inside Gaza when the one-week ceasefire formally ends on 25 January.

As people across Gaza struggle to establish some fragile semblance of normality amidst the ruins, the corpses being unearthed, the overwhelming grief, and the carcinogenic uncertainty of what is coming next, doctors like Mohammed are doggedly trying to treat those with the worst injuries. I spoke to him just a few minutes ago – he’s in Jabaliya refugee camp now, in northern Gaza, working as a doctor in another local clinic. ‘People are relieved about the peace, but now we are all in shock,’ he told me. ‘Like we just started to see what has really happened to us.’   

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