It is just after the Midday-prayer in Gaza. My assistant and I have been in Jabalia since early morning four o’clock. Journalist, cameraman and local fixer are with us. They asked to come. They have an armoured car – we have a soft skin UN vehicle. If things go pear shaped we will hide in their car. Tit for tat.
We are here to monitor the fighting that has evolved during the past three weeks. Main battle tanks have gradually advanced through the UN school compounds marking the border to Block 2 in the most overpopulated place on earth.
In the morning we had to evacuate from our observation point on a sixth floor rooftop when the cameraman moved too quickly, was discovered and drew automatic fire from tanks and snipers below. We managed to drag the team to the third floor before heavy machine gun fire smashed into the floors above us. The local fixer was shaking. He has become a burden. He is cracking up. We got filthy from the dust. Close call.
Around midday we circulate the central market in the middle of Jabalia refugee camp on foot. The fighting is taking place 400 meters to our left, down a narrow side street, yet some market stalls are still open and shoppers buy local produce. Thousands of men and boys are drawn towards the fighting. Masked militants move through the crowds. Some are carrying RPGs. Most are equipped with AK-47s. They come from all over the Gaza Strip and chant their slogans to announce their support for the fighting.
Above the ordinary sound of single shots and machinegun bursts a sudden massive thump of a huge explosion. Dust and garbage is blown into the market place from the side street. The mumbling of the crowd swells to a roar. A flood of panic stricken men and boys emerge from the street spilling into the market place. The local fixer legs it. He has finally had enough and decides to go home. The cameraman is filming and moving towards the site of the explosion while the crowd is moving towards him. A group of wounded people emerge from the street limping, screaming, bleeding, crying, and crawling. I grab the cameraman’s shoulder. He is totally into it. I look at my assistant. “Time to get out of here,” I shout to him through the noise. He grabs the journalist. We push them through the crowd to our car.
We drive to the local UN health clinic. A few minutes later the first ambulance arrives. In the filthy courtyard everybody in the ever present crowd seems to direct the traffic and push each other around to make way for the ambulance. Chaos reins. Bystanders rip open the rear door of the ambulance and take a step back. The camera man is filming. The ambulance is packed with body parts in a big pile: Arms; legs; torsos with no head; heads without torso; torsos with no intestines; fingers; feet.
The crowd goes into shock. “Allah U’Akhbar,” they scream in recognition of the presence of Martyrs. God is great this afternoon in Jabalia. Volunteers grab the body parts and carry them inside the clinic, spreading them on the dirty sandy floor in the reception. A ten year old kid carries the smashed torso of a grown man with pride. There is blood, snot, human tissue and brain matter all over the place. Even on the walls.
The cameraman stops filming. There is no money to make from splat. Not even Al Manar or Al Jazeera will buy this kind of images. He is disappointed. He is wasting his time. He looks at the journalist and shrugs his shoulders. We can’t do anymore here. We ask the medical officer to call us, once they have put the puzzle together and have a body count. The doctor looks tired – very tired. In his blood stained white garment he looks much more like a butcher than a medical officer. He asks for medical supplies. My assistant makes the call.
We sip very hot sweet tea from small glasses in the shade under a tarpaulin in a corner of the overcrowded courtyard inside the walled health clinic compound. The clinic janitor wafts away the massive wall of curious children with a long piece of electrical wiring, giving us just enough private space to talk with the community elders. The resident security guard from a nearby UNRWA school approaches me. His house on the perimeter of the schoolyard was flattened by a tank a couple of days ago. Fortunately he had evacuated his wife and 8 children before his home was demolished. He asks for alternative housing. I make the call and he is referred to the right people. UNRWA has temporary emergency housing for his family at another school together with thousands of other people who have lost their homes to the fighting. He wants to kiss me. No need. I really did not do anything but making a phone call.
The liaison officer calls me. He tells me that one of their tanks have reported mass casualties when a building collapsed. I ask him to have the report verified, since the injuries we have seen are not consistent with a collapse of a building.
Another explosion rocks the refugee camp. A helicopter fires a missile into the confrontation area in Block 2. I look at the journalist. He nods. We leave our little safe heaven and rumble through the narrow alleyways. The streets are covered by overhanging green netting in an attempt to hide movement from the drones. The all seeing eye in the sky. When we reach the impact area it is almost over. The ambulance is leaving the scene. Two militants on a motorbike were hit by a missile. A couple of innocent bystanders also bought it. They were in the ‘Wrong place at the wrong time’. Some 20 men leap around picking up pieces of human remains, stuffing plastic bags from the local grocery. It is important that all parts of the martyrs are buried.
The journalist looks at me. “This is normal?” he asks. “Another day in the office,” I say with a grin. He can see my eyes are not smiling.
We are back in the office late afternoon. I run through the stack of e-mails flashing on my computer.
UNRWA Headquarters want statistics of pregnant women miscarrying in ambulances while held up at checkpoints during the past three years. They want the information right now for an ongoing major UN conference in Geneva.
The deputy boss wants figures and composition of the emergency rations we delivered to families surrounded and cut off by Israeli tanks in Beit Lahia yesterday.
The security officer wants the total casualty figures for the past three weeks of fighting and the number of homemade missiles fired by Hamas during December last year.
We kick life into our databases. The finance officer wants suggestions for spending the savings we made on our programme budget last year and an explanation why we have savings. The boss wants our program closed and has delayed recruiting of international staff to provoke a burn-out and voluntary resignation of present staff. A sensitive diplomatic response is required for the donor of our budget.
UNICEF has requested our assistance to negotiate access into one of the closed areas in Northern Gaza to distribute toys and school kits for the permanently trapped children. Access to beneficiaries in areas under military closure is one of the core tasks of our programme.
WFP has finally given us the details of drivers and vehicles to be used during emergency food distribution into closed areas in the southern part of Gaza the day after tomorrow. The fax must be written and sent to the liaison officer within half an hour to meet the deadline.
My female colleague is stressed. She calls me on the phone. She is trapped outside Gaza, lingering in a hotel room in Jerusalem. She would like to join us in the field. I have no possibility of getting her through the border crossing. She complains that she has a headache. I tell her not to worry and take a rest. I am trying to be compassionate. She feels better. I really need her to assist us inside Gaza. We are struggling with fatigue.
The office looks like a garbage dump. I look at my assistant. He looks like shit, but I am convinced I look even worse. “Let’s do it,” I tell him. “Hadehr,” he says. “Yes boss.”
The time is 2030. It is dark. International staff members are not allowed to move outside when it is dark. The security officer has made his decision. I am a good boy. I am in my flat.
First phone call goes off. It’s my wife. She wants to spend money on a new leather jacket she has seen during a shopping trip with her girlfriends. I haven’t seen her for almost six months. Her call makes me remember how much I miss her and our boy. I miss our life together. I hate to admit it, but I miss shopping too. It reminds me never to take normality for granted. I lie to her and say that nothing is going on here. No reason to fuel her worries.
Second phone goes off. It is Ahmad. He reports that a French journalist was kidnapped by unknown militants in Gaza City fifteen minutes ago. I call the security officer. He comes on the radio and orders all internationals to stay in their residences until further notice. Unfortunate lock-down, since I am running out of cigarettes. I have to call the doorman on the intercom and have him go to the shop. He brings me a couple of pitas from the local shawarma take-away. I nuke the food in the microwave to mitigate the risk of spending a couple of days in gruelling intestine agony.
The phone rings. An ambulance transporting a washed up body of a drowned Egyptian sailor is stuck at a checkpoint on its way to the morgue. The stench of the decaying body is making the ambulance crew puke after they have spent three hours inside the hot ambulance at the check-point. I call the liaison officer. Five minutes later the ambulance crew reports that they have been allowed to cross the checkpoint.
The medical officer from Jabalia calls me. He has seven bodies and some additional loose parts that in his estimate belong to three more persons; 63 injured, covering the whole register from missing limbs to scratches and burns. I make a note for the record.
The boss calls. He wants an investigation of an incident where one schoolgirl was killed and two others injured by gunshots while standing at parade inside a UN schoolyard. Not now boss; tomorrow. “Inshallah”, if God is willing.
I watch the BBC news. No real news value in a normal day in Gaza. It doesn’t sell. Just 30 seconds telling about continued fighting supported by archive footage.
The Embassy in Jerusalem calls. They want to know if their engineer can enter Gaza and continue his work within the coming week. I make a quick glance at my crystal ball. Nobody has been able to enter or leave Gaza for three weeks. The fighting rages in the area just inside the only check-point for border crossing into Israel. I tell the Embassy no. They are happy; another week in a hotel in Jerusalem out of danger. They want me to go live on national TV tomorrow night and comment about the situation. Then I have to ask the boss for a permission to move outside during dark to get to the TV studio. That will make him stroppy.
A helicopter gunship fires a missile at a building some 300 meters from my flat. The power grid fails. The generator does not kick in. The landlord does not have access to rationed diesel – or he has no more credit at the gas station. Better go to bed. It is just after midnight. In the candle light I look at my son’s picture at the side of the bed. Soon we will be together again – Inshallah.
I catch a couple of hours half asleep with radio reports on explosions and clashes in other parts of the Strip. In the distance I register some exchanges of single shots and automatic fire. At around 3 in the morning the building rocks from a massive explosion. I look out my window and see a low-altitude jetfighter breaking the sound barrier as it skirmishes up and down the Mediterranean coastline. In the resulting silence I hear people stir and shout. A child cries in fear. Eventually everyone settle down and I doze off again.
The first call to Morning Prayer at sunrise. Another day starts at the office. The power is back, but now there’s no water. I dig into my emergency stash of bottled water. I turn on the kettle for a cup of coffee. No shower this morning. It’s my anniversary: 1100th day in the madness of Fun City. The phone rings – there is little chance that this ever stops.