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
By Patricia Campbell
It threatened to rain as we walked behind the tri color draped coffin in Aughnacloy. The mass had been officiated by well know human rights campaigner, Fr Raymond Murray and the congregation had listened to Niall Farrell’s heart felt and moving tribute to Eilish. The large crowd of mourners slowly made their way to the County Tyrone burial ground which over looks the green fields of County Monaghan.
Just as she was to be laid to rest the grey skies could no longer contain its spillage, the mourners tried to take cover in every form, heads covered, umbrellas opened and people huddled together to try and escape the down pour of rain as they said good bye to one of Ireland’s finest daughters on a Summer August afternoon. Mother Ireland was crying too.
Eilish McCabe nee McAnespie has taken her place in the history journals along side many other brave women of Ireland, women like Kathleen Clarke, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Marie Combeford and others too numerous to mention. Like Eilish they were not just Irish revolutionaries they were socialists and Internationalists and they too knew sacrifice, pain and conviction.
Eilish was an exceptional woman. She demonstrated a steely courage through out the darkest and most dangerous days of the war and she showed that same courage in the face of death. She knew she was dying she had fought cancer for five years. She did not accept medical opinion some three years earlier, which advised she had only six months to live.
Her determination to live proved stronger than medical opinion. However she knew the cancer raging through her body would eventually overcome her so she cherished every living moment and forged ahead with her quest for truth and Justice.
Described as a campaigner for truth and justice, she never stopped campaigning for the truth about the murder of her brother Aidan McAnespie, shot dead at a British check point on his way to a Gaelic game one cold Sunday afternoon in January 1988. Her motivation to fight for the truth was not solely driven by personal pain and loss or that she had arrived on the scene of Aidan’s murder and held the brother she adored as he lay fatally wounded, his life taken by one single carefully aimed bullet discharged from the gun of a British Soldier.
Eilish would have campaigned for truth and justice regardless she was a political activist long before her brother was murdered. She and Aidan experienced persecution on a regular basis at the hands of British Soldiers and especially at Aughnacloy Checkpoint
One might get the impression that all her fighting, struggling, fear and determination would leave her cynical and perhaps inflexible – far from the truth she was fun loving, her smile lit up her face and her presence lit up the atmosphere. She was passionate and full of life, full of devilment. She loved life and she loved people.
I thought about her the day Tyrone football team brought the Sam Maguire cup across the Aughnacloy border for the third time in September. She had been there to celebrate and greet the team on previous occasions, win or loose. In the early days of this years championship when Tyrone were replaying Down she was receiving treatment in Belfast’s City Hospital. Despite being attached to her lifeline, an intravenous drip she longed to go and shout for her team she felt mentally able but she wasn’t physically able, her mental strength far outweighing her frail body
I said my last good bye to her a few days before she died. She was surrounded by her family who loved her and no doubt must miss her desperately, especially their first Christmas without her. She maintained that quiet dignity and strength right up to the end
I will remember her with pride and sadness, proud that she was my friend and sad that she is gone. In her final months she taught me how to cherish every moment of life and how not to be afraid to die.
My good friend and comrade Patricia Campbell (below left) of Belfast just returned from a trip to Palestine in her capacity as a psychiatric nurse. Patricia is also President of the Independent Workers Union and a co-editor of the Irish journal Fourthwrite. Here’s what she wrote:
Not even the little birds are free in Palestine – a personal account by Patricia Campbell
The journey from Tel Aviv was intriguing and full of unknown expectation. It was in the middle of the night as the taxi driver drove along the unlit barren roads to Ramallah.
As we approached the city of Ramallah I noticed the familiar sight of a prison which stretched alongside the road. I asked the taxi driver “Is this a prison?” In perfect English he told me it was Atranout Prison. I later learned it was a place which also holds those who dare to cross the many borders without permission to try and make a living.
As we entered Ramallah City we were stopped at a checkpoint, no hassle though, a military style figure shone the torch into the taxi, viewed the two Western women in the back and signaled for us to proceed. It was a Palestinian military police checkpoint.
My colleague and I were here in a professional capacity to attend a conference organized by Gaza Community mental health Programme (GCMHP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The theme, Siege and Mental Health Walls v Bridges. As mental health clinicians we were presenting a paper to the conference highlighting how siege has impacted on the mental health of a number of individuals in Belfast.
The Israeli authorities denied hundreds of international clinicians, medics and academics entry to Gaza to participate in the conference. The day before the conference was scheduled to begin many of the conference participants assembled at Erez/Gaza Crossing to protest Israel’s denial of academic expression, freedom of speech and the entry of health care professionals from all over the world to Gaza.
I feel overwhelmed by the whole experience of Palestine, a place I could only read about and be privy to images on our TV screens. ‘Seeing is believing’ I noticed that the work force in this social and economic deprived country were predominantly male. In the hotel where I stayed, waiters and cleaners were male, a job mainly reserved for women here in Ireland and more recently migrant workers. I was struck by the heavily fortified concrete wall which separates and imprisons the people of Gaza. I wanted to see beyond that wall. One must ask what are the Israelis trying to hide?
As we were protesting a small number of people and children were waiting to get back in to Gaza. They had been given special permission to leave. One man had been given leave for medical treatment. I saw a woman sitting on a concrete slab just looking ahead with no expression in her eyes. One of the most moving aspects for me personally was the sight of little children playing like children in any other part of the world but without the colour and facilities that awakens the young imagination. As they waited with their mother in grey concrete surroundings in a Middle East landscape they were oblivious to the draconian measures imposed on them because they know nothing else.
Attracting much international media attention conference organizers had a plan B and the conference went ahead as planned by video link from Ramallah City in the West Bank with Gaza
The conference itself was a huge success. The thought provoking workshops and art exhibition leads the way to maintain and build the strong bonds established between the international delegates who were participating on common ground, health, peace and human rights. The way is clear for us to exchange knowledge, experiences and ideas for the future. I believe this is a new beginning.
From Gaza a 15 year old girl gave a moving account of how she was taking on role as mother to her young siblings, her mother imprisoned in appalling conditions and gave birth there. They long for the day when they will reunite and get to know their little brother. There was another account of how the Israeli authorities continue their dehumanization policy by imposing closed prison visits, which means there is no human contact between the prisoner and their loved ones. Colour is being added to the screen which separates the prisoner and visitor so that the prisoner appears the same colour as the screen.
At another workshop the plight of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and those who are electronically tagged and under house arrest in England was heard. The impact of torture and imprisonment on their mental health was addressed. I made the point that of the small number of patients from Belfast my colleague and I were presenting, all of whom have serious mental illness post conflict, the majority of them were imprisoned and report similar experiences to those prisoners mentioned.
Powerful concluding remarks from two Psychiatrists, Gaza based Dr Ahmad Abu Tawahina and London based Dr Derek Summerfield speaking from Ramallah were heard by all delegates. Dr Ahmad’s address, ‘Besieging Hatred’ was significant. He spoke of the need for health care professionals to promote the empowerment of people. He gave an analytical account of how the superiority complex of the Israeli regime influences Palestinians. He explained, there is a constant attempt to frustrate and humiliate Palestinians and a total disrespect for Palestinian Ministers who are kept waiting at checkpoints. Palestinians may internalize this and unconsciously adopt the inferior role. For me this was poignant. I have always shared the view it is absolutely imperative to empower our young people because they are the future negotiators in every aspect of conflict and life. If one negotiates from a position of weakness and inferiority then one is more likely to compromise and produce bad outcomes.
Dr Summerfield spoke about ethics in conflict zones. He described how doctors were bound by ethics of responsibility and ethics of conviction. The former being accountable and responsible, the latter a version of deeply held personal values. He highlighted how some doctors ignored and colluded with practices of torture and how their ethics of conviction overrule their ethics of responsibility.
My colleague and I visited Jerusalem. Palestinians must have permission to enter this beautiful City with its eight gates. A checkpoint controlled by Israeli soldiers enforces Israeli policy. As we sat waiting in traffic at the check point I couldn’t help but compare it with Aughnacloy Checkpoint which was situated on the Tyrone and Monaghan border in Ireland, separating the British controlled part of Ireland from the Republic.
Brought up in Northern Ireland, waiting at check points is not a new experience for me. I continued to observe. To my right were large rocks surrounded by garbage, empty drinks cans and food wrappings, an indication of people’s disdain for this restricted area, The rocks were topped with winding and tangled razor wire. A little bird flew into the wire and got caught. As it tried to escape I looked away to avoid witnessing its inevitable fate. I thought, not even the little birds are free in Palestine.
The walls and military presence in Palestine were all too familiar, many of the stories and experiences too. I realize just how besieged the people of Palestine are. Their movement and choices restricted and their human rights constantly abused
Before departing from Ben Gurion Airport we spent an evening in Tel Aviv. In a short space of time I learned so much about the Israeli way of life. We met an Israeli of duty solider and heard his story. We met young men who had just completed their three years military service. They all shared the same view, “Palestinians are terrorists and we need to protect ourselves”. We visited Jaffa and saw the church which was under siege, making news headlines around the world in 2003.
The Ben Gorian experience was shocking. It’s the place were many are strip searched, interrogated and kept waiting for hours. My colleague and I are registering a complaint with our perspective Embassies. We were subjected to harassment, interrogation, theft of personal belongings and excessive security measures. We were asked to produce our conference badges which they referred to as a ‘peace conference’ and then a ‘human rights’ conference, one could be forgiven for believing they are threatened by both peace and human rights. We were escorted to flight check in and then separated. We were only able to find each other in their Maze of systems and security because we were both fortunate to have roaming network mobile phones otherwise we would have missed our flight.
The airport is staffed by a mainly young work force. They appeared programmed and robotic as they performed their duties. At the impressionable age of 18 young men and women of Israel embark on a 3 year compulsory military service. The regimented youth of Israel then join the workforce.
This was a very important journey for me, personally and professionally. Earlier when I addressed my fellow delegates at Erez Border I made the point, “I am here in a professional capacity. I am bound by a code of ethics. There is nothing more ethical that being here today. This is my opportunity to express my humanity”. After listening to Dr Summerfield I am confident that I not only exercised ethics of responsibility but also the ethics of conviction. I call on all health care professionals to do likewise. We have a responsibility to do what is right.