Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip – Jawdat Sami al-Madhoun could hardly believe it when he saw the gates of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital appear in front of him. The 26-year-old doctor’s assistant had managed to leave the besieged al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and walk the 16km (10 miles) to Deir el-Balah.
Jawdat had spent the previous 25 days volunteering at al-Shifa’s emergency department, struggling along with the rest of its staff to help the injured as best they could, often without the most basic medicines and supplies.
“We couldn’t help the wounded,” he told Al Jazeera on Monday, looking away as his voice broke. “They were dying! We couldn’t do anything to save them. We would just watch them die.
“There are hundreds of bodies in the hospital’s courtyard. We couldn’t even bury them.”
A hospital where nobody can help the sick
Al-Shifa has been besieged by Israeli forces since Friday, with nobody allowed in or out of the compound of Gaza’s oldest and largest hospital. On Wednesday, Israeli forces raided it, claiming that there was a Hamas fighters’ command centre within. That claim has not been proven to date.
The hospital lost its electricity supply entirely on Saturday, bringing all its medical devices to a stop and endangering 39 premature babies whose incubators stopped working.
Since then, seven babies have died, a toll that is rising as the hospital remains offline. Staff at the hospital have interred at least 179 dead bodies in the courtyard.
Even moving between the medical buildings on the compound, Jawdat said, was a matter of life and death because Israeli snipers targeted anyone moving.
“I was a volunteer,” he said. “I would receive people, triage some cases, and bandage up anyone I could help. I’m not a fully trained nurse, but I studied it for about a year and a half, so I wanted to do something, anything, to help.
“One day, four beautiful little girls came in, the oldest was about 13 years old, only one of them was injured… they came in with their dead family, father, mother, brother, we did what we had to do and buried them,” Jawdat stopped again, lowering his head and sobbing.
“The injured little girl looked at me and said: ‘Please, Uncle, let me die with them. I don’t know how I would live without my parents and my brother.’
“Another day, we received a 12-year-old boy, badly injured in an attack that had killed his family. Whenever he saw me, he would say: ‘Can you either make me better or let me go [die] with them?’
“I don’t know where we got the energy to do this work. God must have given all of us the strength to keep going. The doctors were working in a frenzy. They were willing to work for three, four days in a row without sleeping, to do anything if they could just save one more child, one more person.
“I have a friend, Islam al-Munshid; I was surprised to find him in the reception area one day, badly injured. Turns out he had been hurt in the Israeli attack on al-Shifa gate the day before, and I hadn’t seen him in the middle of all the injuries that were coming in. I asked the doctors how he was doing, and they said: ‘He’s brain dead, but his body is still breathing. Pray for him to rest in peace.’
“Three days, 72 hours, I would go and check on him every hour to see if he was still breathing or not until finally, he died.
“There was nothing we could do. If we had the least bit of equipment, maybe we could have helped him, but we had nothing, so we could do nothing. His skull was broken in two places, and he would have needed urgent surgery to save his life, but we couldn’t.”
A family separated
Jawdat and his wife, May, like many families in Gaza, had decided to stay in separate locations in the hopes that as many people as possible would survive the relentless Israeli bombing and could reunite later.
May, 23, was also in Gaza City, but Jawdat was unable to reach her because of tanks, snipers and random explosions on the streets.
Talking about May, Jawdat’s fear got the better of him, and he broke down in tears again at the thought that he may never see his wife again.
He knew that there was no way he could have reached her in Gaza City, but the fact that she had only received one of his messages in several days and he had heard nothing from her for three days overwhelmed him.
Desperate to be with his family, his mind turned to Deir el-Balah in central Gaza, where he had finally managed to convince his mother to move on Friday.
“My mother has kidney ailments, but she was adamant that she would never leave her city. She would tell me: ‘If we, the people of this land, leave it, who will be left to take care of it?’
“But her continued presence there was such a danger to her life and her.”
Without his family, he felt lost, and at al-Shifa, he felt helpless.
“We couldn’t do much for the wounded. There’s no gauze, no oxygen, no supplies. All we could do was clean their wounds. Some of those who died, … all they needed was a little oxygen.”
The only respite, he said, was when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was able to help them move the premature babies, all bundled up tightly to keep them as warm as possible without their incubators.
“The ICRC [got] us one hour to move the premature babies from the maternity ward to the reception hall,” Jawdat said.
“They also told us to stay away from the windows lest we get shot. We were, of course, so very ‘grateful’ to them for that warning,” he said wryly.
‘A little bit of courage’
Jawdat left the hospital with a group of displaced people who had been sheltering at al-Shifa, hoping to make it past Israeli soldiers, tanks and snipers all the way to the south.
He knew the risks.
“[Monday] morning, we received six cases in the hospital, all injuries. They had gotten shot after the Israeli army told them it was OK to leave the building they were in. As they left, they promptly got shot,” Jawdat said.
But he had heard that a previous group that left earlier in the day had made it through safely.
“They said they were shot at, but they made it south. A little bit of courage, they said. It takes a little bit of courage.”
Jawdat and his companions were shot at three times, running on each occasion to try to avoid the snipers. Eventually, the group split up as the slower people lagged behind, and others split off at various intersections.
At one point, Jawdat and a few others were stopped by Israeli soldiers, who made them stand with their hands up in the air, holding their IDs. One man scratched his head, Jawdat said, and was called over by the Israeli soldiers. He is not sure what happened to him after that.
At another point, “they took about 20 men and stripped them naked, beat them, humiliated them, then released them. It’s like whenever the soldiers get bored, they would pick one to bully and humiliate”.
That was not the worst of what Jawdat saw on the road. He said he ran past bodies, a little girl’s severed foot and a woman in her 50s, still wearing her prayer clothes, lying dead on the ground.
Jawdat made it to Deir el-Balah. He doesn’t know how many more of those who also fled al-Shifa did.