Paramedics risk all in a war zone

By Erin Majurey Wintec student journalist

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A Hamilton paramedic and her UK companion are risking life and limb to help civilians in war-torn Gaza City.

The pair arrived in the Gaza strip in March with little more than their passports and a stack of donated medical supplies.

Gillian Gates, 32, and Kathleen Henwood, 28, are qualified paramedics and have done a range of human rights work at home and abroad, including working together in Israel and the West Bank in 2007.

Originally from Scotland, Gill moved with her family to Hamilton when she was young. After completing her studies at Sacred Heart Girls' College, she went on to gain her Bachelor of Health Sciences (Paramedic) at AUT.

"The medical situation in Gaza is at crisis point. The blockade has seriously impacted medical supplies and equipment and the health services are overwhelmed," said Gill.

"We have self-funded our entire trip, saving over the last couple of years. The equipment we brought with us was purchased with funds donated by friends and fellow health workers."

As the crisis in Gaza worsens, many foreigners are abandoning their posts but Gill and Kathleen went through a lot to gain access into a country rapidly falling apart.

"The paperwork took months to finalise, which left us in limbo in the UK," they said. "Then we flew to Cairo and had to wait a week for the border in Rafah to open. We had a window of two days to cross within the time restrictions of our visa. We then drove through the Sinai (and a dozen checkpoints) to the Rafah Crossing. In all, it took seven hours to cross the 500m border, after a six-hour drive. To our relief, we managed to hold on to the medical donations we brought with us, despite searches and questions on both sides of the border, they said.

"The forced indignity of the crossing was hard to witness, as smartly dressed Palestinians emerged from the crush of the gate dirty and shaken. For access to your home to be dependent on political whim, to be corralled by soldiers and forced to wait for hours in the dirt for the chance to get crushed while you try to get through a tiny gate leading to passport control - it's hard to imagine. I can't imagine what it's like to have a job, a university place, an urgent medical treatment or a family funeral on the other side of that border."

Once in Gaza, the women were able to visit the Red Crescent central ambulance station, where they work. They handed over their donation of medical supplies to director Dr Khaleel Abu Alfol. The supplies included two complete 'response bags' for ambulances and a stack of miscellaneous hospital kits.

"These guys work under such unimaginable circumstances and see the horror of the conflict up close every day they go to work. They are renowned for putting themselves in harm's way to save the lives of countless civilians and are experts at what they do."

Although they are staying in what appears to be the safest part of Gaza City, well away from the borderlands and surrounded by NGO buildings full of international workers, they are feeling the pressure like everyone else.

"When we arrived, the electricity was eight hours on and eight hours off. In the last few days, it's been six on and 12 off. In December, fuel ran out completely and there were 50 days of less than four hours electricity each day. So no lights, no electric heating, no television, no internet, no hot water, nothing."

Generators are used as back up but not everyone can afford that luxury, leaving most people in the dark.

"The cost of running the generators is vast. The Palestinian Medical Relief Society is spending $6000 a month on fuel, even with reduced clinic hours. The Ministry of Health is using generators for 12-16 hours a day in its locations, including Al Shifa hospital, the biggest in Gaza. Even with people employed solely to watch the generators, it provides unreliable electricity which damages expensive medical equipment."

With the electricity shortage comes a great deal of isolation but the women have managed to keep in touch with people at home during the sporadic surges.

"We have been emailing and skyping home when we have power and the wifi is working. We have our blog and we've been texting and calling loved ones."

Gill and Kathleen planned to be in Gaza for four months but with air strike retaliation on the cards, they take it a day at a time.

"There's a lot of speculation and rumour as to what's going to happen next. Some think a major attack is imminent, or will occur when the weather improves."

For more about the work Gill and Kathleen are doing in Gaza, or to donate, follow their blog paramedicsingaza.org.

- Hamilton News

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