The Painter and The Shark

words and pictures from an aesthete

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Day Six in Al Shifa, Gaza

Earlier I read this letter from Dina, she is the mother of Omar, who I love very dearly. 

"Which heroic stand was this? Whose war? Whose borders? How could the world sit back in silence?"


Today is day six in Gaza, the day it all starts getting to you. Yesterday we went out to look around and started saw the devastation. Homes destroyed, pharmacies, doctors’ surgeries…all blatant violations of the Geneva Conventions. I was still detached, I went around with my colleague Dr. Haytham, accompanied by old friends from Gaza. Dr. Yehia drove us around; we started in the Shejaieh neighborhood and Hay al Tuffah. The destruction, the putrid smells – I could see his pain as he showed us where was born and where his children were born. They destroyed my memories, he said. I could see him taking in a deep breath as he said this was enough for today…we were both seeing this destruction for the first time.

Today I knew why he was so reluctant to go through this. I realized what was around the corner. We drove by the site of where the Wafa hospital was. Total destruction – unrecognisable. The site included the old hospital building, the new hospital building, the old people’s nursing home and a centre for disabled children. Also near them was a school that was shelled…..WHAT THE HELL! Next to it was a huge home with the family sitting outside, looking, hoping, talking. Yet the smell of rot and flies all around were nagging on everyone’s mind. Could it be someone was still under all this rubble? They were trying to justify it. Perhaps it’s a cat or some crushed animal. Will it work, I wonder – the smell lingers in the air.

Then we reached Shejayieh. It looked like Hiroshima. Like the bomb had struck again. Again, no words could describe the scale of the devastation. I could not focus anymore, which heroic stand this was and which borders? One thing was for sure, it was total annihilation. HOW COULD THE WORLD have sat back silently?! How. As we approached, the people there ran up to our bus thinking we were the ambulance coming to the rescue as they had identified some body parts…

We got out and faced the public. We did not dare take out our cameras. There was a lot of tension and anger. People started telling us their stories, the children, the women, the men. We then came to the destroyed home of a great grandmother who had lost her son and his family and now they were digging up her daughter who herself was a grandmother…and most probably the body of her daughter next to her. It was pieces of a body. Hearing that great grandmother relate her story really moved me and made me realize how much I was part of this reality. In the operating room it was easy to shut out the emotions and let the adrenalin work its way into action. 

We waited until the ambulances arrived. We did not want to leave before. The situation was very tense and delicate. What a stench, what a sight. I remembered the man sleeping in the hospital who had told me the first day and the third day, where do I go? Have you seen Shujaieh? We do not know where the house was or where the road was….

The children there were very proud. One did not have shoes on his feet. They related heroic stories of the resistance and of the Israeli army running away and fleeing, leaving their stretchers behind them. If fact the borders were very close, just there. The camera in the sky was watching us. We were taken later to a hill in the liberated part of Gaza where the colony of Gush Katif stood. We were thanked for our efforts and invited to lunch. We met up with our colleagues from the south who had done a similar tour visiting Khuzaa, where resistance fighters were assassinated on their way to fight. 

Inside the bus we were sweating in the heat, outside all we could see was destruction. The Gaza beach did not look as liberating or happy as it usually did. As we drove along, there was the coffee shop that was shelled, killing the youth who were watching the world cup match. A few meters more, another site, another home and so on – how could anyone look at the beach…..

We finally got back to Shifa hospital. I asked my colleague Shabaan to come and meet us as we went out to get something for Haneen to cheer her up. We went to a toyshop and a lady asked if she could buy something for the children in the hospital to cheer them up. After I chose what to get, she bought them and gave them to me, asking me to deliver them to the hospital. 

We went to see Haneen and her aunt was there. Her face looked more swollen and her hands warm, she had a fever. She thanked us for the colourful image poster and I hung it up so she can look at. We also got her a balloon and a teddy bear. Some toys were already there. Again, she asked me about my daughter and wanted to see a picture. I could not pull up one of Haya, so I promised her to come tomorrow and show her. Her father arrived and she asked him about her mother, hoping she were ok…I later found out that Haneen still has a third sister in the hospital being treated from shell burns and that she was undergoing surgery tomorrow for a muscle transplant. I really hope she does not lose her arm. I asked her father what was happening, he said they will send her to Scotland for surgery. I asked when, he did not know.

On my way going to say goodbye to my colleagues in the operating room I saw a boy being brought in for a wound debridement. As he was in a lot of pain I looked at his foot and it was gangrenous. He was writhing in bed. I got closed to him and asked what was happening. I am scared, he told me. Of what? I asked. It is painful. Even without being touched? Yes, he said. When I asked him his name, it was Omar. They were trying to hurry him in I asked them to stop. I am ‘Im Omar,’ my eldest son is also called Omar, I said, so I am allowed a few seconds. I knelt closer to him and assured him that they will give him some medicine in the IV that will put him to sleep so he will not feel the pain of the dressing and we will see what to do when he wakes up. I stepped out of the theatre and called my friend Shaaban, hoping he will bring me a balloon and a toy for Omar. As soon as Shaaban answered the phone I was chocking up with tears. It was too much to bear these children surviving the shelling like this. Omar will lose a limb and Haneen might too – the pain has just started.

When Shaaban came I went to see Omar. He was fast asleep. He will be coming to Jerusalem tomorrow. They do not know to which hospital yet. I told his parents to insist as each day he will lose more of his limb.

I asked about Scotland. It will take six months for any transfers. I hurried to my computer to find Magda – my colleague, a surgeon from Scotland. I know she will help………but who will take care of the children?

Day 5 in Al Shifa

I’ve just been sent another update from Dina, the mother of my former partner Omar. She is a Palestinian medic, who has been deployed from Al Quds (Jerusalem) to the Al Shifa hospital in Gaza.

Day 5

We woke up today to the sound of thundering, followed by the sound of an F16 fighter jet. I jumped out of bed hoping the ceasefire hopes we went to bed with were not shattered. I looked at my watch and saw it was seven thirty in the morning. I realized that this must be the usual cycle (as people say) before the ceasefire was in effect at eight. I was relieved, I felt the buzzing sound outside sounded different. My colleague, Dr. Dina, with whom I share a name and a room, laughed. She thought the buzz had never stopped, so how could it be different? In fact it was outside. The small selling stalls on the floor selling flip flops, underwear, t-shirts, shorts…

The mats and cardboards were gone from the balcony, yet the makeshift tents were there. People were arguing, discussing going home or waiting. To go check their homes, or to wait. Like every morning on the walk to the hospital passing the morgue we encounter death, today another martyr in another ambulance. We walked past a young man crying and pulling at his hair and a woman in the car in tears.

I reach the operating room as I do each morning and there was a happy atmosphere. No casualties today, nothing to do this morning. I did not even feel like holding my chlorine based wipe and going around with it. I decided to visit Haneen.

Dr. Haytham, my colleague and I went in. How are you? We asked. Ok she said, her head tilted to the side. What happened to my sister? I do not know, I said, but I will ask. What happened to my father? We saw him in the emergency room, he is ok, perhaps he is in the hospital or he has been sent home, I answered. What home? I bit my tongue. There is no more home. I said perhaps to someone’s home from the family. But I promised we will ask. Finally she asked about her mother. I had no idea…Tell me what happened to them. I promised again I would ask. She asked me once more about my daughter. How is she? She is well, I said.

Again, she asked about her sisters.

I went to the operating room and asked to find out. The nurses helped find a relative who came a few hours later. He had tears in his eyes. Haneen’s mother had passed away, her two sisters, her uncle and her cousin from another uncle. That was the baby that had come in that morning with her…

This afternoon, my colleagues from Gaza insisted on taking us around. The damage, the destruction, the awe, the smell of rot. It was Jenin revisited a million times over!

I have still not made it to the Shejaieye proper, there it is total annihilation…

We are not the heroes. It is the Gaza people that are the heroes as they survive and live on through all this pain.

Liver with fava beans and a big amarone. #hannibal #hanniballecter #food #wine #cookingforone

Al Shifa hospital, Gaza

Dina Khoury-Nasser, about whom I wrote yesterday sent an update from the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, where she is working under harrowing conditions to provide medical support to the thousands injured by Israel’s recent terrorism.


Today was day four in Gaza. The first two days were like limbo. We felt we were in Gaza but not yet feeling what was happening around. We live in the hospital compound: eat in the compound, work in the compound, sleep in the compound. We see the injured, hear the ambulances, see the bodies and people strewn around everywhere - still it does not sink in. Yesterday evening things started to get real when I saw a child sleeping with his father in the open air on a piece of cardboard. He was there in the morning, there in the evening, and again this morning and this evening. I wonder where is his mother, where is his family? The stories one hears about entire families being annihilated, completely erased from the national registers of citizenship makes your hair stand on end! But still, it does not sink in. Perhaps because I am in the operation room and used to seeing people injured. Then reality hits when the shelling in Jabalia starts. At ten in the evening we receive a lady in her sixties. She is full of dust, full of earth and full of holes throughout her body. Head lacerated, thighs lacerated, leg crushed. I think of where she could have been sitting, what were her thoughts when the shell hit…I thought of mom, I thought of all the older women I know.

When the bombing started this morning, it was children. Our first patient was a little boy around six years old. He had massive lacerations to his groin, abdomen, face and head. He had burns all over his body as well. We were able to manage him in the theatre. I wait to see how he is doing. Then comes Haneen. She is an eight year old; my colleague from the emergency room, Dr. Haytham informed me that a child is coming up with her hand hanging on her side. I went up to Haneen who was waiting calmly in the holding bay. Her eyes were closed. She had a bandage across her head; her eyes were closed because of the swelling from the oedema and the burns to her face. I approached her and held her, and greeted her, and informed her of my name. I held her little hand on the injured side. I told her that I will be with her - she held my fingers. She informed me that her hand hurts. I told her that it was injured and that we will try and fix it. She then asked me about her father and two sisters. I told her that her father was waiting for her. I could not tell her that her sister had died. I still could not tell her that later that evening, her other sister was brought in dead from under the rubble…they were both less than four years old.

I saw Haneen in the ICU later. She was awake and extubated. I greeted her and told her that I was Dina. One eye was now open. She asked me if I had a daughter, I said yes. She asked me what is her name. I said Haya. She said that is a pretty name.

It was a tough day that ended with hopeful news. The plane up above, called zanana (drone) keeps buzzing all around. My colleagues from Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem arrived today with supplies. I felt proud to greet them. The Hospital had done an excellent job sending supplies and individual packs to each of us. They were greeted and their support appreciated. Being there is all that matters. On a personal level, I feel responsible for a big group now. It is very nice to have Dr. Haytham here; he is a wonderful professional colleague. My other colleagues are in Nasser Hospital in Rafah (South of Gaza), treating the injured and witnessing the toll of martyrs. One other colleague is at Al Aqsa Hospital working in surgery.

The smell of blood and death is around the young and the old. Each day we are greeted with the car coming to take the martyrs. Our room is close to the mortuary. You look at the faces of people here - they are all stunned. A nurse on duty looks deeply sad - her son comes with her to work. My friend Bassam from Gaza came to visit me and brought me a lot of goodies to eat. I distributed them among our team and colleagues. I was worried when I looked into his eyes and saw how red they were. The strain on his face was apparent. His son had a close call, and his nephew has ben injured. They are children. They were playing in the street and had just stepped into the house….

The nursing director had to take a deep breath as he recalled all the children that he had seen. We will need time to heal she said, the pain will take time. The stories are overwhelming and the loss has not yet stopped.

Al Shifa hospital

Dina Khoury-Nasser is Omar’s mother, who many of you know is very dear to me. She was kind enough to host me at her home in Al Quds (Jerusalem) for Christmas in 2012, which was when I first came to understand what living under military occupation meant.

She now joins a team of medics deployed from Al Quds to Gaza, and is trying to help relieve the horror of Israel’s terrorism in Gaza. She will be working at the Al-Shifa hospital, which you may remember was recently shelled by Israel, and has since been warned that it will be targeted again.

For 15 years Dina and her family have lived under the Kafkan hell of Israeli occupation. Take for example, the farcical system of identity cards. Dina had, in 1987 the advantage of a Jerusalem ID, Youssef, her husband since 1984 and the father of her three children did not. Every night for 15 years, Youssef was forced to leave Al Quds (Jerusalem) before 10pm. If he were to drive Dina’s car (which has Israeli plates) he faced arrest.

When Dina and Youssef’s youngest son, Faress was born in 1995, the hospital refused to register the birth. This was how Dina learned that she had had lost her Jerusalem ID, an arbitrary response to her attempts to have Youssef’s ID restored. Neither Dina, Youssef, nor Faress existed anymore.

In 2000, after a costly two-year legal battle in Israel, they were able to have their identities restored, and the existence of Faress acknowledged.

This is just one of the millions of stories of oppression faced by the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced to live under Israeli occupation.

Dina is not a warrior, she is a healer. She is not a human shield, she’s a humanitarian.

If I thought it would work, I’d be tempted to pray that the Israeli terrorists do not shell her as she tends to the thousands of wounded crowded into Al-Shifa.

All I can do is beg you to speak to your MPs and congresswomen, speak to your friends, speak to anyone who will listen about the daily injustices meted out against the people of Palestine. Boycott Israeli goods, protest at the embassy. Blog, sing, write, paint.

Please don’t do nothing.


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