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Caring for civilians caught up in war – the story of an ambulanceman in Gaza

22-09-2009 Feature

Ashraf is an ambulanceman with the Palestine Red Crescent in Rafah, Gaza. He counts himself lucky to be able to help people and save lives, and is proud of what he does. But being an ambulanceman in Gaza is a risky job.

   
  ©Palestine Red Crescent    
 
Ashraf Al Khatib    
   
   
  ©ICRC /S. Abu Hasna / il-e-01544    
 
Gaza, January 2009. A Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance.    
      

Ashraf Al Khatib works as an emergency medical technician at a Palestine Red Crescent ambulance station in Rafah serving more than 100,000 inhabitants. Rafah, situated in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, is often the target of Israeli military operations.

With 11 years of experience, Ashraf has had the opportunity to help many people in the area by administering first aid or bringing them to hospital. " I feel that I am fortunate to have a very special job that enables me to offer something that few others can in terms of saving lives, " said Ashraf. " I take pride in my job and derive a great deal of satisfaction from it. But whenever I go out on a call I also feel fear. "

Ashraf is very concerned about safety. Working in a conflict zone, he knows it is vital that he identify himself as a medical worker so that he is not mistaken for a fighter. " I always wear my uniform, of course, and we turn on all the ambulance's lights and sirens whenever we are called out. There is also a Palestine Red Crescent flag on the ambulance that makes it easier to identify us as medical personnel. I love my job and will never give it up, but I really wish I could feel safe while doing it. "

Any member of an ambulance crew is certain to experience some difficult moments. But one incident from last winter's conflict in Gaza stands out for Ashraf who, at that point, was working around the clock to take the wounded to hospital. " As I live near the border, I moved my wife and two children to my in-laws'house when the land invasion started. They live in the city centre, which I felt would be safer. Shortly after the move we heard powerf ul explosions. I knew right away that my in-laws'neighbourhood had been hit and that there would be a high number of casualties. I rushed to the scene with my team and was in shock when I saw what had happened. The neighbourhood looked completely destroyed and there were people in the streets with appalling wounds. I started to collect the wounded, including a cousin of mine, to take them to hospital while saying to myself: " okay, you have no time to go and check on your wife and children, so carry on with your work and if something bad has happened to them they will be attended to by your colleagues. " That was the worst moment I ever experienced in my job. I felt so torn between desperately wanting to check on my family and knowing that I had to help the wounded people right in front of me. My cousin later died in hospital but, luckily, my wife and children turned out to be unharmed. "

During the war, many young people signed up as volunteers at the Palestine Red Crescent ambulance station to help out in any way they could, and some have now decided to train as paramedics. " We actually feel very much appreciated by the community, " said Ashraf. " Sometimes people are angry because we were not able to save a life, but that probably happens to ambulance teams all over the world. Most of the time, we feel gratitude and respect for what we do. I myself really appreciate that, because this is a tough job. "