Mahmoud Abu Aisha is 23 years old; Based in Palestine, Gaza. He is active in mental health issues, lobbying and advocating on the Palestinian issue in the medical and academic forums worldwide. Mahmoud works for Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) as Project Officer of the Crisis Intervention for Victims of Israeli War. He was the coordinator for the GCMHP’s 5th International Conference “Siege and Mental Health… Walls vs. Bridges” which took place on 26-28 October, 2008. The conference was co sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Patricia Campbell, from the north of Ireland, was a participant at the conference. She has maintained contact with Mahmoud since the conference and through out the war. She interviews him for Fourthwrite magazine and Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) as well as The Rustbelt Radical website.
PC: It is beyond our comprehension what it must have been like living with constant threat, death, destruction and bombings. Can you explain how you and other survivors coped during those three weeks of constant attack?
Mahmoud: When I used to write about victims of Israeli crimes, I never imagined that one day I’d be writing about the unbearable misery of my own family.
In the first days of Israel’s war against Gaza, we received a phone call from friends about the bombing of my cousin’s home. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. Fifteen minutes later, another phone call came from relatives asking whether we had heard this news and if it was true.
I turned on the radio and the local station confirmed that the Abu Aisha home had been bombed by F16 warplanes, resulting in the murder of the entire family of seven.
When we arrived at my cousin’s house we found the civil defence and ambulances there collecting the severed limbs of the children and their parents. We found the father’s corpse laying on the ground, about 50 meters away from the home, with severe injuries and burns. One of the mothers, (we couldn’t distinguish which one) was found with the head and shoulder amputated from her body.
The fate of the children was even more heart-wrenching. I was weeping while collecting their limbs and shredded bodies. The three children were Mohamad, 4 years, Ghaida, 7 years, and Sayed, 10 years. I am still traumatized from seeing their fingers, flesh and guts spread everywhere.
Only Dalal, 12 years old, survived. She had gone to sleep with her aunt the day before, as she was afraid of the shelling. When she discovered that she had lost her entire family, she slumped over in shock. She was inconsolable, crying; “I am an orphan… what is my sin?… Nothing remains for me…”
Dalal is consumed with grief by the loss of her family, and she cries constantly. The only things left in her home were her school uniform, her cat and some photos of her brothers and sister.
No safe place
We have lived difficult times under the Israeli war. We were subject to the Israeli undiscriminating missiles that target everything, yes everything. Neither stones, nor trees, nor humans were safe. Everyday, every moment, we experienced death and destruction. We didn’t feel safe even in our homes. They threatened so many people to evacuate their homes by phone calls to shell them. Many of the threats were real and others were to spread fear and terror among civilians. All in all, it was a form of psychological warfare, yet we witnessed other cruel threats by the direct bombardment of many homes in very intensive areas. Many people left their homes in pursuit of safe places, but nowhere was safe everywhere was attacked.
Israeli air jets
Not only this, the Israeli air jets and artillery shelling targeted civilian homes causing disasters and calamities for every family in the Gaza Strip. I personally was about to die in many situations. One day, I was walking with my friend under high level of precautions, suddenly huge explosions occurred around 30 meters in front of us targeting an empty school near our home, causing great dust and stones and shrapnel everywhere. My friend fell down screaming. He sustained a chest injury and caused deep wounds and burns to his body and broken ribs. Other people were injured in their homes in the surrounding area.
Military tanks and bulldozers
One day, we received news that the military tanks and bulldozers came closer to our home. We had to leave our home in a hurry, we took our luggage and I went with my sister in law and her three sons (3, 5, 7 years) at sunset. A hail of bullets rushed everywhere and we witnessed explosives in the buildings ahead us. You can imagine the fear, panic and anxiety we felt. My fear aroused from the inability to protect my nephews. They were crying and clinging with my chest and hands. Even my sister-in-law was terrified that she was grasping my jacket. Despite the high level of risk, we had to go ahead despite the challenge. On our way we entered a cemetery that was shelled two days before, the airplanes fired lightening bombs over our heads… we were frozen with fear and my sister-in-law collapsed. I could hardly hold the young two children, she proceeded to walk barefooted, and the older child (2nd primary grade) was clinging my legs. We crept along to survive until we reached another populated area. We stayed in our relatives’ home, though it was not safe there either. We endured the 22 days struggling for survival. When we heard news about more deaths, it became ordinary as life became equal to death in Gaza at that time.
During this time we were without electricity or water or communication in most of the Gaza areas. All the networks were destroyed, so we didn’t know the full extent of the destruction.
When the bombing stopped
After the war ended, I couldn’t bear witnessing the scenes of destruction everywhere. The barbarity of the situation became apparent. I went to the destroyed areas, and realised how much destruction happened. I couldn’t recognize the roads in the neighbourhoods.
PC: There is reports that suggest the conduct of Israeli ground troops were ruthless and barbaric. Can you tell us more about that?
Mahmoud: Actually, words cannot describe what the Israeli ground troops committed in the Gaza strip. The behaviour of the Israeli troops during this war hasn’t been ordinary troops’ behaviour during fighting; rather, it has reflected a kind of personal or group revenge. This has been indicated throughout targeting civilians and innocent people in a very aggressive, inhumane, and cruel ways, using internationally prohibited weapons and causing calamities for every family in Gaza… I lost my cousin, her husband and kids in an Israeli F16 missile at their home after midnight… and only Dalal 12 years was the survivor in this family.
Destruction and Genocide
Every thing was entirely destroyed. When I saw what happened to the invaded areas, I couldn’t recognize the original sites or buildings. The destruction was in a very horrible way. Even animals were killed, dead cows were thrown away decaying and causing dangerous diseases to people sheltered in UNESCO tents. High buildings were targeted and shelled causing damages to all the surrounding houses. Every single individual was affected directly by direct injuries or indirectly by losing dear people or shelling their homes. Detention was very brutal against the innocent civilians who couldn’t escape. Genocide crimes were committed against entire families, such as my relatives Abu Aisha’s; my cousin Dalal 12 years lost her parents and the three siblings. Also, Al-Samouny family members were all besieged (more than 30) in one room and shelled by Apache warplanes, and artillery shelling. Again, the scene was indescribable.
PC: Are tensions still high in Gaza?
Mahmoud: Unfortunately, tensions are still high and increasing with the Israeli threats of more stages of military invasions. There were reports there is military invasion in the eastern boarders, not so far from our area in Gaza. We live with anxiety, panic and fear all the time. Children have shown new critical symptoms like intrusive obsessive behaviours, bed-witting, stuttering, fear of death, nightmares, depression, and PTSD. A few days ago, we were asked to evacuate our offices as there were Israeli threats to resume the air strikes against the remaining governmental building and the banks and all civil society organizations were asked to evacuate to avoid any potential shelling. Our headquarters of Gaza Community Mental Health organization was partially destroyed by the Israeli shelling. All in all, tensions are still high and situation is unpredictable as there is no agreement upon truce or ceasefire.
PC: While Gaza was burning international governments ignored the plight of Palestinians but thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across the world. Here in Ireland the people of Derry carried Palestinian flags in solidarity with the people of Gaza when they commemorated 13 people from Derry, shot dead by British Paratroops in 1972 and they changed the historical and famous wall mural of ‘Free Derry’ corner to ‘Free Gaza’ Does this type of international solidarity reach the people of Gaza and does it encourage you?
Mahmoud: In fact, yes we know about these solidarity actions by people all over the world like Northern Ireland and United Kingdom and Boston and so many free cities in the western world that inspire us with the soul of resistance and steadfastness against the Israeli cruelty. In the same time we feel sad and sorry about the governments’ stance with Israel that violates all human rights conventions and international laws, and rape humanity in front of the fee world. We do acknowledge and recognize the important role of all nations and their solidarity with us and their positions against the injustice and crimes by Israel, the so-called democratic state!
PC: International doctors who treated the injured in Gaza Hospitals testified that most of the injuries and burns resulted from the use of white phosphors, a powerful chemical munitions that can cause serious and sometimes fatal burns. Can you enlighten us further on this?
Mahmoud: Based on the testimonies of the international doctors who came to Gaza to serve the injured people at hospitals, it was indicated that most of the injuries and burns resulted from using the white phosphors, a powerful chemical munitions that can cause serious and sometimes fatal burns. In this regard, Dr. Nafez Abu Shaaban, the head of the burns unit at Shifa said: “We have never seen this type of injury or the number of such injuries … these were not usual burns.” These new weapons will end up either by death within 6 – 8 months or chronic diseases like cancer and other disabilities. As a result, we have more than 5.000 people who became disable following their injuries. This will leave hundreds of families without livelihood, and hundreds of children orphans. Consequently, feelings of avenge and anger have increased to levels threatening all prospects of peace and stability in the area and will lead to more radical generations.
PC: Finally, despite all you have been through you told me in an email that the people of Gaza are strong and determined. In some ways this is reflected in the colourful picture you captured of little children playing in the middle of the rubble and destruction. How are people dealing with the aftermath of the Israeli onslaught?
People of Gaza have inspired source of power from their long history of trauma they have experienced that equipped people and strengthened them to be able to cope with new traumatic events. Additionally, the strong social ties, family support and religious believes have promoted their psychological resilience. Though, some vulnerable groups like children still face psychological problems and need our help.
Mahmoud’s concluding statement
At the end, I’d like to call upon all free people to work against the Israeli barbaric siege over the Gaza Strip to end the suffocation of the innocent civilians and children. Please let our children live like yours. Please don’t deny us the right to live in safety and security. It’s a call for humanity.
*photos from Mahmoud