Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gaza: Struggling to Stand Upright

A half-finished two-story building in central Gaza City is one of the few places providing support to amputees, most of them civilian victims of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as they try and come to terms with their injuries.

Ten patients are waiting to see Dr Hazem al-Shawwa, the director of the Artificial Limb and Polio Centre. Mostly young, they had been caught in the violence of Israel’s 23-day assault on Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, and were still learning to use their new prosthetic limbs. 
Photo: Ghassan Matter, 15, points at holes which the Israeli missiles that hit him on 5 January 2009 made. He lost his legs in the incident and uses artificial limbs now

“We have 250 new amputees following the Israeli war to add to the 5,000 cases we had before the war,” said al-Shawwa. “Some of the injured from the Gaza war are still having problems with their amputated limbs as they were not treated properly at the time due to the hectic situation; initial treatments focused on saving lives.”

A new upper floor extension to the centre is under construction, reflecting the demand for its services, but a lack of funds has delayed work.

In the centre’s ground-floor training room, 15-year-old Jamila al-Habbash took a firm grip on the parallel bars and shuffled forward. She lost both her legs in a missile strike by an unmanned Israeli drone as she played on the roof of her home in eastern Gaza city: her sister and cousin were killed in the blast.

Mohamed Ziada, one of five specialists at the centre, said Jamila was making good progress since her artificial legs were fitted in December, and may soon not need her crutches. He pointed out that treating teenagers was expensive as they quickly outgrow their prosthetics and need numerous re-fittings. 
“Worse than a nightmare” 

Fifteen-year-old Ghassan Mattar also lost his legs when an Israeli missile hit his home in eastern Gaza City on 5 January 2009, an
incident documented by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). “I still can’t believe I’ve lost my legs. It’s worse than a nightmare”.

The only rehabilitation hospital with the capacity to treat amputee patients effectively is the al-Wafaa Rehabilitation Centre in northern Gaza. Ghassan should have been sent there directly but the hospital was hit by artillery fire during Israel’s Gaza incursion, and its wards were evacuated, according to PCHR.
Imports interrupted 

The problem facing the centre is that a blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel since June 2007 has interrupted imports of both prosthetic limbs - mainly from Germany - and the raw materials with which to make them. 
“We use hundreds of different parts, plastics and materials to make prosthetic arms and legs. Without even just one of the materials, the limb cannot be made,” says Ziada.

It takes about 30 hours to manufacture a limb when all the parts are available. “The
Red Cross helps the centre to mediate between us and the Israelis to let materials cross, which takes about three months,” Ziada added.

Prosthetics specialists from other countries who have tried to come and train Gazan doctors have been denied entry into Gaza, according to Ziada. “We need at least another five specialists because of the large number of amputees from the Gaza war.”

Israel says the aim of its incursion (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009) was to destroy the military infrastructure of Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, and to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel. According to the PCHR more than 5’300 Palestinians were injured in the conflict.

Photo: Jamila al-Habbash, 15, lost both her legs in a missile strike by an unmanned Israeli drone as she played on the roof of her home in eastern Gaza. She receives training to wear her artificial legs. 

Originally published with our friends at IRIN.


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