Mike McRoberts, TV3 news journalist and UNICEF NZ Ambassador has just returned from Gaza. This is his report.
We hadn’t been in Gaza for more than two minutes before we saw our first body. Cameraman Simon Ashwoth and I were part of group of 30 media who had waited for four hours to travel through Erez crossing. The relief and anticipation among the group as we arrived on the Gaza side of the border quickly disappeared as we passed the woman’s corpse on the side of the road.
The northern part of Gaza is where the heaviest fighting has taken place and while we heard plenty on shelling on our journey on the “safe’ side of the trip, most of the neighbourhoods we travelled through showed few signs of the conflict.
Our driver of course had taken the least dangerous route to the coast, but did slow down briefly in almost tourist operator fashion to point out “Shajaiya, on your left”, the eastern district that was reduced to rubble a day earlier, killing more than 60 and wounding hundreds.
I remember seeing reports of families fleeing with what worldly belongings they could carry and helplessly asking reporters “where could they go?” its true there is nowhere to hide in Gaza. And I heard it many times when I was there “we live in a prison”.
I immediately felt it. The heat, the weight of my flak jacket but moreover that sense you were closed in, I’ve never felt so claustrophobic in the open before.
There wasn’t a moment in the days I was inside Gaza that I didn’t hear a drone above me. They sound like motorbikes riding in the sky. Occasionally they’d be drowned out by shelling or an F16 fighter jet, but that noise was ever present. It has me constantly on edge.
— Mike McRoberts (@MrMikeMcRoberts) July 22, 2014
Living with that noise and knowing what it means day in and day out must be torture for Gazans. Within an hour of arriving we came across an 11-strorey apartment-block that looked like a giant hammer had smashed one side of it. On this occasion the hammer was an Israeli F16 fighter jet’s payload.
Hundreds had gathered as a frantic search and rescue effort was under way. A crane perched on top of a mound of dirt was being used to access the top of the building. Men dangerously suspended with ropes were using sledge hammers to try and clear the rubble when they found a woman’s body. They pulled it out and dropped it from what would have been the eighth floor to the dirt below. She was the 19th corpse they’d removed. Then the crowd started chanting “ali akbaa” in a spine tingling respect of her body and defiance of her killers. I saw an ambulance nearby and optimistically asked the driver if he was waiting for survivors. He told me they were no survivors, and then without warning he opened the door to show me a collection of body parts that had been recovered. I felt physically sick.
I’ve covered enough wars and disasters over the year to have a thick, pragmatic skin about in situations like these.
They are gone, and while they are mourned over and reported on, what really matters are the living. That feeling was reinforced when I spent the morning at Al Shifa hospital. It is a sprawling collection of buildings united in misery. Every ward is full of wounded and utterly gut wrenching stories of loss.
When I first saw five-year-old Maha Sheik Khalil I thought she was dead. Her tiny frame seemed so still. Then I was told shrapnel in the back of her neck and severed her spinal cord and she was unable to move. The hospital doesn’t have the equipment to operate on her and so she had spent four days just lying on her back.
In the faintest of voices she told me that her home in Shajaiya had been bombed and her mother and two sisters killed. She had been stuck under rubble for six hours before neighbours rescued her.
Between sobbing, my interpreter translated her story. We learned her she had two brothers somewhere else in the hospital but she didn’t know where.
The image of her lying there by herself with no one to comfort her still brings me to tears. I’m picking it will for some time. I was determined to show as many faces in my 3News stories as I could. I am sick of hearing about death tolls and the number of wounded. One innocent life lost is enough.