Itzak Goldhirsch loves flying. Today, as he soars above the south-western borders of his homeland in an F-15I Ra’am attack jet, he has a special sense of exhilaration. The savages in the Gaza strip have been firing their home-made katyushas at his home town of Ashkelon since early in the morning, and to top it off, this is the day his father died in the first Palestinian intifada. His squadron has been on standby while others have flown sorties over northern Gaza, but now he’s airborne and armed to the teeth. Today he will be settling some old scores.
Clouds of dust rain down from cracks in the ceiling of the hospital’s emergency intake area. Nurses shrouded in hujub bustle about efficiently, while orderlies and doctors work together to shuffle incoming patients into different triage areas. The patients arriving in a steady stream are suffering burns, contusions and a mix of wounds from flying masonry, car parts and shrapnel.
The hospital vibrates with the shock of another volley of missiles rains down from the Israeli jets strafing Hamas Katyusha launch sites. Undoubtedly, some of the men – some merely boys – coming into the hospital are Hamas militants. The Israelis will claim these people are responsible for the current carnage, but to Issa al-Shafi and his staff, there is no difference between jihadi and civilian – they are all simply patients.
Basim al-Mehri is one of the doctors helping with the triage process. He is a talented young physician who received his medical training in Montreal. This morning, he has seen forty-seven patients. Three have been relatives of his, but he has shown no favouritism – two had minor cuts and bruises and were bandaged up and sent home. One had a concussion and was dispatched to an observation bed in a corridor. In the meantime, eight people were dispatched directly to surgical teams.
It’s now twenty-five past eight in the evening, and Basim has been on shift for eighteen hours. He’s had a crappy day by anyone’s standards, but it’s about to get worse.
Siddiq gets excited every time the rocket men get set up. He loves watching the rockets fizzing skyward, smoke trails almost solid as they leave the ground, but becoming ghost like over time. He thinks of the smoke as the tails of venomous snakes as the rockets fly towards the homes of his jailors. He has no fear of guns, but is quietly terrified of the thick soled military boots worn by Israeli soldiers as they barge around the Gaza Strip. The green uniforms are also troubling, but it’s definitely the boots that he fears.
Today he sits in his favourite spot for watching the smoke snakes. The balcony he lurks in overlooks one of the places often used by the rocket-men. He is just big enough to peek over the railings of a stair-way, and his favourite spot is about five stories above the ground. His aunt Maysan lives in one of the flats adjacent to the stair case. She often looks after him after school when his mother and father are both working at the hospital.
The launch area is a rectangular playground flanked by a tall apartment complex on three sides, and overlooked by a smaller two-story building on the fourth. The rockets have sufficient clearance to clear the roof of the smaller building, but the rocketeers are protected from Israeli jets by the densely populated apartment blocks. The Hamas men cheer as each volley of rockets launches into the sky. They wave their rifles in the air, but the safeties are on. They do not want to risk hurting the local residents. An unusually large pile of rockets sits ready to rack and fire.
Siddiq remembers one of the older neighbourhood boys saying something about an anniversary of something that happened before he was born. His eyes furrow as he tries to remember. He wants to remember why there were so many rockets when he gets older. It was about his people – the Palestinians – and what was the word? Something to do with water? Ah… Intifada. Flood. He smiles cheerfully now that he remembers.
Siddiq’s aunt Maysan hasn’t arrived at her flat yet. She is normally here by now if Mama and Baba are working. Maybe something is wrong. It’s fun watching the smoke snakes, but he’s starting to think perhaps he shouldn’t be where he is. But where to go? Home? There’ll be nobody there. Aunt Maysan’s work in the souq? He’s not supposed to go in there without an adult, though. The hospital maybe? He might get into trouble with Mama and Baba for interrupting them while they’re busy, but it’s better than sitting alone waiting for aunt Maysan. The hospital it is then. Siddiq steps away from the rail of the stairwell, then everything around him goes red, then black.
Amreen al-Mehri sits next to her husband on a bench in an atrium within the hospital complex. They are both weary to the bone and need a break from the seemingly endless human carnage that has crossed their path since they were called into work. Amreen nestles into her husband’s shoulder, and Basim leans his own head gently against the head of his wife. They relax for a moment: breathing in the cool night air and try to forget the horrors of their day.
After a couple of minutes, Amreen stirs.
“We should call Maysan and say goodnight to Siddiq.”
“Siddiq…” Basim starts.
“What?” Amreen asks warily, dread starting to filter through her mental and physical fatigue.
“I saw Maysan this afternoon. She had a concussion. She should still be here – there was nobody to stay with her if she went home.”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Siddiq!” Amreen yells, leaping to her feet. “We have to find him!”
Basim sees that his wife is close to panic. He lays his hands firmly on her shoulders to calm her and locks his gaze on her eyes – challenging her to look at him.
“You go to Maysan’s place, I’ll head home and see if he’s there.”
Amreen composes herself, nodding. She reminds herself that she is one of the best trauma surgeons in Gaza, and flips into work mode. Internally, she is shrieking her son’s name, but nobody looking at her would know. She strides back into the hospital arm in arm with Basim, ignoring the disapproving looks from some of the older and more conservative Gazans.
Dim echoes reach slowly into Siddiq’s consciousness. He cannot see, he cannot move. There is pressure on his neck and… not pressure on his forehead. He tries to move his fingers, remembering watching his parents working with patients at the hospital. He manages to touch his right thumb and fore-finger together and feels… dust? He doesn’t remember being somewhere dusty. Where is he? He feels like he is being moved. He senses acceleration and deceleration as excruciation. Pain? What happened? Why is there pressure on his neck?
Amreen and Basim have changed out of their scrubs. They know better than to go into Gaza looking like doctors on a heavy casualty day. Finding their son is more important than getting dragged away at gun-point to “treat” some hysterical person’s already dead relatives. They’re leaving via the main entrance. The glass doors are boarded up, but the doors are still functional.
At the threshold of the hospital they look at each other, each deeply conscious of the battle the other is fighting to remain calm; but looking around at the others coming and going, they realise they now look like most other Gaza residents on a day like today: tired; worried; wrung out; traumatised. Basim has his hand on the door – about to open it for his wife – when the Emergency Department’s adminstrator, Omeed Akram bustles up anxiously with a clipboard.
“Omeed, please. We told you earlier, we need to go find Siddiq,” says Basim.
“Take the clipboard Basim.” Akram locks eyes with Basim, challenging him to try not taking the clipboard. Basim glares back, and Akram buckles.
“Please Basim. It’s your son.”
Basim snatches the clipboard, scans its contents. As he does so, Akram looks to both Basim and Amreen, saying “He lives, by the grace of God.”
Stricken, Basim passes the clip-board to his panicked spouse.
“I’m sorry my sweet, but we both need to get ready for surgery.”
“That’s what I said. We are both too tired, and too emotionally involved to be of any use. Omeed will find the best person for the job. Won’t you Omeed?” she finished, wheeling on Akram and flashing him a grim smile.
“But how do we kn…”
“Basim, my love.”
“They might make a mis…”
“What if they miss some…”
“They won’t. But we might.”
Resigned, Basim al-Mehri slumps to the ground. His wife sits next to him and embraces him. It is taking all her will not to run screaming to the operating theatre where her son is being treated, but she knows that she and her husband must be parents in this moment, not doctors.
Omeed Akram puts a hand on the shoulder of his two best doctors, then wearily bends to pick up the clipboard. “Siddiq will be fine if God wills it. Come. You can at least be ready to see him when he comes out of surgery.”
Alan MacArthur steps into the corridor outside the operating theatre. He is an Australian doctor who has come to Gaza with Medecins sans Frontiers. He spots Basim and Amreen and stalks over to them. “Siddiq will live.”
“Thanks be to God!” Basim whispers. “Thank you Alan. What state is he in?”
“He’s still not out of the woods, but he’s stable and comfortable.”
“Is he awake?” asks Amreen.
“No. We had to put him in a medically induced coma to deal with the bleeding. He had a subdural haematoma against the cerebral cortex which was suppressing his vision and causing a lot of pain, but we were able to pull it out before it caused any other issues. The front of his skull took a bad knock – we think it was a flying chunk of brick based on the shape of the crush zone. He’ll have some pretty serious rehab in front of him, but he’ll be able to get back to something pretty close to normal.”
“Thank you Alan. Was there anything else?”
“A couple of fractured ribs, a hairline fracture on a couple of fingers – it looks like he managed to get his hand up in front of the brick before it hit him. Nothing that would stop a kid back home from playing footy for more than three to four weeks.”
Amreen raises an eye at that, ever the protective mother, but understood the point. Her time with Basim in Canada meant that she was fully familiar with what boys will tolerate when it comes to full-contact sports like Ice Hockey and American Football. Basim seems less perturbed by the Australian’s cavalier attitude, and has other questions.
“How long will you need to maintain the coma for, Alan?”
“Not long – probably two to three days at most for clinical reasons, but we might think about giving him a few extra days to recover without being aware of the pain.”
“And the skull fracture?”
“We had to replace the damaged bone with a titanium plate. He’ll have a few small scars, but we tried to keep the cut and screw holes behind the hair line as much as possible. Don’t worry – he’s a good looking kid, and you’ll still recognize him when he wakes up.”
“One final question Alan.”
Basim pulls Amreen close to him and wraps an arm around her shoulders.
“How do we go about emigrating to Australia? Gaza has been home to our families for dozens of generations, but if staying here puts our boy at risk, then it is time to go.”