'Screams, doldrums, fight for survival', Malayali health workers recall their days in Palestine

Natasha and Moinuddin. Photo: Special Arrangement

Abu Dhabi: A smile is something that they had forgotten. Keralites Khaja Moinuddin and Natasha Shajahan are still in the shock of taking care of the people, who had forgotten to smile, for about 26 days.

Physiotherapists Moinuddin and Natasha served in the UAE's field hospital catering to the Palestinians injured in the war with Israel. "We were with them, including babies, for about 26 days," the health workers recalled their experience at the Rafah hospital in the southern Gaza Strip.

The field hospital was set up under the specific instruction of the UAE President, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as part of the Gallant Knight Mission-3.

Moinuddin and Natasha shared their experience with Manorama Online.

The lost population
Moinuddin, 33, of Bandiyod in Kasaragod, has been a physiotherapist at NMC Healthcare for the past one-and-a-half years. Natasha, a resident of Alappuzha but hailing from Varkala in Thiruvananthapuram, is also a physiotherapist at the same hospital for the past decade.  

The field hospital with modern facilities was set up to provide treatment to those injured in the Israeli airstrike on Palestine. Besides the staff from UAE government-run hospitals, volunteers from private institutions, too, are serving at the hospital in the Palestine-Jordan border city of Rafah.

Moinuddin with patients. Photo: Special Arrangement

The staff take turns to serve in the hospital. Each group serves at the hospital for 45 days, before another team replaces them. Moinuddin and Natasha joined the field hospital on February 11 and returned on March 7.

They said that the 500-bed UAE hospital is around five kilometres from Rafah City with a population of about 14 lakh. The hospital operates an outpatient department, besides an intensive care unit, an emergency operation theatre, a prosthetic limb centre, and a physiotherapy unit, where Moinuddin and Natasha were served from 7 am to 4 pm daily.

Moinuddin and Natasha were provided tents to stay during their first week but were later shifted to porta cabins. Separate accommodation with almost all facilities was provided for men and women. They had to put in additional hours in the hospitals during emergencies.

Volunteering for a cause
Besides the UAE's field hospital, those of Qatar, Jordan and other countries, too, are operational in Rafah. Hundreds of health workers, including doctors and nurses work round-the-clock in these hospitals. The initiative is known as Al Faris Chivalrous Knight Mission. The health workers are all volunteers from various countries. 

The UAE sends teams of 200 health workers each at a time. The country has not yet faced a dearth of volunteers. Several Malayalis from NMC have served in the field hospital more than once. 

Natasha takes care of a child who lost her leg. Photo: Special Arrangement

Moinuddin and Natasha said they had been pained by media reports on the Palestinians' plight. When they got an opportunity, both signed up to volunteer without having second thoughts. They were the only staff from NMC in their group.

Uncertain future
Though Northern Palestine is most affected by the Israeli air raids, the UAE's field hospital receives the injured, including little children with severed limbs, from various parts of the West Asian state. They are provided adequate treatment and prosthetic limbs, and the needy are provided with wheelchairs as well.

However, most of them are reluctant to leave the hospital after treatment since they have nowhere to go. They are uncertain about a roof over their heads, food and other essentials. The health workers take up the additional responsibility of allaying their fears and sending them off.

Moinuddin and Natasha said they were often in tears on hearing the patients' stories. Natasha recalled a girl trying hard to smile when seated in a wheelchair after being provided with prosthetic limbs. The screams of a 40-year-old who lost both her legs above the knee still reverberate in their ears.

Though a significant number of patients recover and return to life, a few grievously injured leave for a painless, warless world, forcing the health workers to return to their porta cabins with a heavy heart.

The young man who lost his family
The frozen look on the face of a young man who lost his wife and three little children to an Israeli airstrike will never be erased from memory, both Moinuddin and Natasha said. His expression never changed throughout the 26 days the physiotherapists were in the field hospital. 

Often jolted awake from sleep, the man used to sit up in the bed. Even after four months of hospitalisation, he kept staring as if repeatedly seeing the tragic moments that had altered his life for good. Though he is being counselled, doctors and nurses are often left without words to console him.

Daily wait for chocolate
Moinuddin and Natasha met the two-and-a-half-year-old boy in the children's ward. He was poisoned following an air raid. His injured mother was staying with him. Moinuddin's friend Mahmud, a nurse at Burjeel Hospital who had earlier served at the Rafah facility, had told him to keep chocolates while visiting such children. 

Moinuddin with the child who used to wait for chocolate. Photo: Special Arrangement

Both Moinuddin and Natasha arrived at Rafah with sweets gifted to them by friends. However, since there were several children, they could offer one chocolate each daily. The two-and-a-half-year-old boy waited for their arrival, hoping to get a chocolate.

The road ahead
The patients are mostly served food that includes bread and cake in a cardboard box. Moinuddin and Natasha noticed most mothers keeping the boxes safely. On enquiry, they were faced with another truth. Once discharged from the hospital, they would be able to make only bread, and firewood or cooking gas would not be available. They kept the boxes to use instead of firewood.

Food, clothes and housing are the three issues those leaving the hospital face in life.

Ball of fire
Israeli surveillance drones, as big as helicopters, are always seen hovering above the hospital. However, they do not cause any trouble. 

Once while returning to their accommodation, Moinuddin and Natasha saw a ball of fire streaking across the sky. In a few seconds, they saw thick black smoke billowing from somewhere about a kilometre away. 

They have seen such clouds of smoke rising to the sky on several occasions. A bomb attack would be felt in a five-kilometre radius, they said.

Horrors of war
War is not familiar to Malayalis. Natasha said the horror of war is much more severe than what we read in newspapers or see on television screens. She said listening to war survivors provides the horrific details, often making her weep.

Several patients who were caught in the vortex of war used to flare up without any specific reason. Natasha said as a woman, she was able to comfort those mothers, sisters, and children. Those were the moments that made her proud of being a woman.

Moinuddin and Natasha are planning to return to the field hospital if they get another opportunity. They had heeded the request of a country that had been their foster mother and spent 26 days staring at the horrors of war. Those health workers who had gone to the field hospital before them, too, have similar experiences to share.

Compassion sans borders
Operation Gallant Knight-3 was launched on humanitarian grounds on November 5 following UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan's order to the Joint Operations Command of the Ministry of Defence. 

Trucks carrying aid from UAE head to Gaza. Photo: WAM

He directed the ministry to roll out the initiative in association with the Emirates Red Crescent, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation and other institutions in the UAE.

The president also instructed the authorities to provide opportunities to doctors registered with the health and defence ministries, UAE health department, Emirates Red Crescent, and volunteers associated with other humanitarian and charitable organisations to volunteer to serve the Palestinians.

So far, the Emirates Red Crescent has sent 29 truckloads of relief materials and medical equipment to Rafah. Additionally, the construction of shelters for the homeless has been completed besides setting up 36 solar-powered searchlights in areas suffering from power outages.

As many as 18,014 winter clothes were distributed, besides providing food for 44,800 people under the Tehkikaat Al Khair project. A subsidised bread project benefitted 16,610 people. The UAE also set up six water desalination plants to provide potable water. The plants could desalinate 1.2 million litres of water a day. The water is pumped to Gaza through pipelines, benefitting more than 6,00,000 people.

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.