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Gaza: turning the power back on

12-07-2006 Feature

ICRC delegate, Dejan Ivkov, describes how he and two colleagues escorted engineers to restore the electricity supply to thousands of Gaza residents and got caught in crossfire during an evacuation that came to naught.

It was around 10 am on Friday July 7 when we got the green light from the Israeli authorities to enter the area of Beit Lahiya. The previous day we had received an urgent request from the Gaza Electricity Company concerning vital cables that were in need of repair. I and two colleagues were designated to escort five technicians to carry out the necessary work. I was surprised that a small company bulldozer also joined our convoy but it was to prove its worth later.

    

Beit Lahya, a town of 80'000 just   six kilometres north of Gaza City had been isolated for almost two days due to the ongoing military operation. Before leaving, we made sure that our contact at the Israeli Civil Administration (DCL), who is also our liaison officer with the Israeli Defense Forces,   had informed ground troops of our trip.

Suddenly the road was empty of pedestrians and civilian cars. Only tanks and armoured vehicles were on the move. One tank turned its cannon in our direction. For a split second, I was scared. Then, a soldier opened the lid of the turret and waved at us to indicate the way. A few hundred metres further on, our way was blocked by a huge pile of sand. The soldiers allowed the company bulldozer to remove it provided it was put back again after we had passed. We did as requested.

The road was full of potholes. The same tank now stood on a hill overlooking us, with its canon still pointing in our direction.

We finally reached the Al-Waha hotel in the area where the fault had been reported. The technicians examined the electricity pylons but they were still functioning despite having been knocked to the ground.

" We need to go further on " , said the chief technician. Easier said than done. I managed to get hold of my contact at the DCL who said we could go " only one additional kilometre " . The area was still relatively quiet as we proceeded with caution. The five technicians were still unable to figure out where the damage was. I asked for further permission to carry on another 500 metres when we saw two huge electric cables that had been hit by shrapnel.

After midday prayers, the technicians could begin working. The job took three hours while tanks passed by on the road. I watched nervously waiting for the repairs to be completed.

We escorted the trucks half-way back to Gaza city, to the point where there was no longer any Israeli military presence. Then we had to turn back as we received a request to evacuate a patient with heart trouble. The report came from only one kilometre away but our car was soon stuck in sand. My colleague, Randi, and I got out and walked for a few hundred metres, waving the ICRC flag as we progressed.

An armoured vehicle was parked in front of a house and half a dozen soldiers were standing nervously in the front yard. When we asked about the patient they told us that he had been evacuated earlier. However, they said that a young man had been wounded in a nearby building and needed to be transported out.

We followed the soldiers'directions, still waving the flag above our heads. Suddenly, heavy shooting broke out. We hugged the wall until we reached the yard of the building where the injured man was supposed to be. The door was locked from the outside with a metal chain. We stood there for a moment, staring at the windows, longing for somebody to answer our calls. The shooting was coming from all over the place. We waited for what seemed a very long time, ten minutes perhaps, and left the place empty-handed.

On the way back to Gaza city, we stopped to buy fish. The Shatti market was quite busy and more importantly the traffic lights were working again! That night, 25'000 people had power restored in their homes.