Fieldset
Life in Gaza: "Is your future decided by where you are born?"

Does your birthplace determine your future? This is a question Kate, a biomedical scientist from the UK, asked herself while on a recent assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Gaza Strip.

The beautiful Gaza coastline.

Is your future decided by where you are born?

There was a time when I would have, for the most part, disagreed with this statement – debating that you can take yourself anywhere in life.

But of course, I would, I am fortunate to have been born in a politically stable country and enjoy many freedoms. The cheesy phrase “the world is your oyster” could not be more true.

However, the opposite is true for Gaza.

The limits on life in Gaza

In Gaza, you know your future from a young age; you know that you will be trapped in this thin strip of land for the rest of your life with little hope of ever setting foot outside of the border.

As an avid traveller myself, the mere thought of this makes me slightly claustrophobic. This sentiment is echoed in the thoughts of many Palestinians, including my colleague who told me how he “longs to breathe in the air outside of the Gaza strip”.

The Gaza Strip is often described as being the world’s largest open-air prison."

The “border crossing” between Israel and Gaza is inarguably one of the most emotive and politically complex places in the world. Since Hamas took power in Gaza, Israel has effectively blockaded the whole strip and turned it into one of the most heavily fortified border crossings in the world.

For this reason, the Gaza Strip is often described as being the world’s largest open-air prison, trapping a population of two million people – half of whom are refugees.

The March of Return

In May this year, frustrations from the hardship and the years of blockade, compounded by a series of other issues – not least the controversial move by the US to relocate their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – prompted an exceptional protest movement called the “Great March of Return”.

A patient injured by gunshot during the March of Return is being operated by MSF teams in Al Hawda Hospital
A patient injured by gunshot during the March of Return is being operated by MSF teams in Al Hawda Hospital

Thousands of Palestinians, the vast majority young men, marched to the fence separating Gaza from Israel. It seems many of them marched peacefully, though some reportedly resorted to throwing rocks, burning tyres or a generally more aggressive behaviour.

However, the Israeli army reaction was extremely violent. The Gazan health authorities counted 55 dead and 2,271 wounded – including 1,359 wounded with live ammunition in one day alone.

Infection and resistance

As a microbiologist gunshot wounds signify one thing to me – infection.

A gunshot wound provides a direct entry point for bacteria to enter and infect deep within the tissue and bone. The condition, known as osteomyelitis, is a serious one which requires access to microbiological diagnostics in order to treat.

However, my previous missions in the Middle East have also taught me that these infections will almost always be resistant to many antibiotics – a huge obstacle to successfully treating our patients all over the world.

Ahmed the microbiologist

Whilst looking around a lab, I meet Ahmed (not his real name). My eyes are immediately drawn to his lower leg where I can see a bloodstained dressing. Supported by crutches, he hobbles into the lab.

I ask him what happened, he says he got shot by a sniper whilst demonstrating at the fence. Now he is bringing in a swab of the wound to check for infection.

There are no jobs, no future, I have nothing to lose - I don’t care if I die."

He then surprises me by saying that he is a microbiologist!

“Really?” I ask.

“Yes I studied microbiology at a university here in Gaza,” he says.

Naturally, I’m surprised; it’s not very often you bump into other microbiology buffs, let alone ones that have been shot by a sniper.

I ask him why he is putting himself in such danger as he is clearly well educated. His reply is something I will never forget:

“There are no jobs, no future, I have nothing to lose - I don’t care if I die. And when this wound is healed I will go to the fence again to demonstrate”.

Many patients like Ahmed face months or even years of complicated treatment for infection, multiple surgeries and risk of amputation. The only way we can effectively diagnose and treat these infections is by sending bone and tissue samples to a microbiology lab for analysis.

The future of Gaza

Meanwhile, people here are continuing to go about their daily lives just like you and me. And, there is certainly a beautiful side to Gaza. The azure coastline and the historical gems in the old city are a few examples, as are the locals who go above and beyond to make you feel welcome.

gaza_coastline.jpg

Gaza coastline
The beautiful Gaza coastline.

Although it is difficult to envisage a solution to this conflict, it is important to remember that there are plenty of people both sides of the border who condemn the acts being made by their governments.

One thing is sure though when people are denied their human rights, you deny their dignity and the right to provide, they will find pride in other things.

When a university educated microbiologist like myself decides his only future is death, I have a genuine fear for the future of Gaza.