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Harald Veen Fresed goes through hell as a doctor at Shifa Hospital in Gaza

16-01-2009 Article, Le Monde, by Michel Bôle-Richard

Article published in "Le Monde" on 16 January 2009. Harald Veen Fresed has just spent a week at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. The Dutch physician, who specializes in abdominal surgery, is exhausted. He was sent to Gaza by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and finds it difficult to disguise his feelings after what he calls "a real tragedy". Although he is no stranger to war or distressing situations – especially African conflicts – he returned home profoundly disturbed by what he had seen.

The surgeon spent a relentless week dealing with all manner of horrific cases. "Mutilated limbs, brains spilling out, intestines exposed, wounded people dying from loss of blood ... the vast number of casualties was horrendous. It was hard to cope. We worked as quickly as we could, picking out those we could save and leaving those for whom it was too late."  

Harald Veen Fresed explained that three teams of 15 doctors took turns to work 24-hour shifts to deal with the constant influx of wounded people. "It reached the point where we could hardly move and we had to work as fast as we could to treat the excessive numbers of patients."  

The surgeon paid tribute to the skill and devotion of the Palestinian doctors, who had medicines but insufficient supplies of materials and not enough space in the wards or in the mortuary. The worst cases were sent to Egypt via Rafah. "I can assure you that more than 1,000 dead is well below the true figure. You think you have seen everything, you think you are well equipped to cope with anything. Well, let me tell you, it was a real ordeal."  

Harald, who is tall, slim and fair-haired and chooses his words carefully, explained that the hardest thing of all was to witness the "personal dramas" . "The parents, the families devastated by death and suffering ... you look on, helpless and lost for words, as these tragedies unfold. Some people wanted to follow the wounded into the operating theatre for fear of never seeing them alive again. Many had huge shrapnel wounds and I wondered how they would ever survive. People always say that war is terrible but you cannot image what it is really like because you only see part of the picture."  

 "A large hole in her back"  

Harald was aware of the many dead people but was particularly conscious of all those with amputated limbs, the paraplegic and the blind. "War does not stop when a ceasefire is declared. For many people, it goes on for years, if not for their whole life." He is sure of one thing: "I was glad to be there. I consider it a privilege to have been of the slightest assistance."  

After working during the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Harald had decided to take two years off to get over the horrors. Then he accepted another assignment. And each time the ICRC calls him, he packs his case and sets off just to make what he calls "a small difference" . "The main thing is to be there." He says he is not an idealist; he has seen too much for that – although that does not stop him having nightmares or reliving scenes he has witnessed.

It was not easy for him to leave Gaza because he had the unpleasant sense of "abandoning" the colleagues with whom he had worked that week. Harald went back to his three-year-old daughter. She is the same age as the little girl that he had seen arriving at Shifa Hospital; she seemed to be unharmed and her eyes were wide open. When he turned her over, she had "a large hole in her back" . She will never walk again.