Civil defense teams are working around the clock with minimal resources to help Palestinians trapped under the rubble. Too often, it’s a losing battle.
By Ruwaida Kamal Amer
“I can’t sleep, not even for a minute. I am constantly haunted by the voices and screams of people under the rubble begging us to get them out.”
This is how Ibrahim Musa, a 27-year-old young man from the Al-Bureij refugee camp, in the center of the Gaza Strip, describes his life since the start of the Israeli bombings. Not only is he struggling to survive day to day like everyone else in the besieged enclave, but Musa is also one of some 14,000 emergency workers in Gaza’s civil defense teams who, after each Israeli air strike, strive to save the lives of people trapped under the rubble.
Although Musa worked in Gaza’s civil defense for five years – including during multiple Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip as well as periods of relative “calm” where the job involved rescuing people in emergency situations, more common emergencies – he has never experienced anything like what is happening today. According to Gaza’s health ministry, more than 8,000 people have been missing since the start of the war, with the vast majority likely trapped under rubble. Many of them likely died despite the efforts of civil defense workers like Musa, unable to cope with the scale of destruction that has ravaged Gaza in recent weeks.
“We don’t have the equipment to remove the rubble,” says Musa. “If it’s a multi-story building, there’s not much we can do. It takes long hours and many attempts to progress.”
When arriving at the scene of destruction following an Israeli airstrike, civil defense officers must quickly try to get a sense of what they are dealing with. “We usually don’t know who is trapped underneath or how many people we are looking for, so we call into the rubble to ask if anyone is alive and can tell us how many people lived in that house,” says Musa. “We shout until someone hears us. Sometimes we get an immediate response, but often we just hear whimpers, which we try to follow in order to save these people. »
Gaza rescue workers are regularly faced with situations where they have to try to calm children trapped under the ruins of their homes. “The children are calling from the rubble and asking for news of their family members,” Musa continues. “Sometimes we lie and tell them everyone is fine so they don’t go into shock. Other times, they call us to tell us that a member of their family lying next to them has been martyred.”
Musa often feels like he and his colleagues are fighting a losing battle. “It’s not one or two houses that are bombed, but entire residential complexes,” he explains. “The entire area is completely obliterated and becomes a simple pile of rubble. We have to dig with our hands to free the wounded who are still alive. We try to be careful, because the weight of the rubble on their bodies could injure them, or even cause them to lose limbs, while trying to save them. »
“My day started on October 7 and has not yet ended”
Ahmed Abu Khudair, from Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, is another member of the civil defense. Like Musa, he describes this war as “more aggressive and more violent” than any of Israel’s previous attacks on the Gaza Strip; in fact, he believes that the Israeli military is actively seeking to inflict as much damage as possible on the civilian population of Gaza.
Civil defense agents themselves are not immune to Israeli attacks: at least 32 of them have been killed since the start of the war, including seven members of Abu Khudair’s team. He thinks it’s not a coincidence.
“The occupying forces are deliberately targeting civil defense teams and ambulances,” explains Mr. Abu Khudair. “I was injured while working in a house that was bombed in southern Gaza. We recovered the bodies of three martyrs and rescued several injured people, but the house was bombed again. When I went up to the roof of one of the nearby houses to look for people, we were exposed to two more missiles.”
Musa agrees with Abu Khudair: “Everyone in Gaza is a target. »
Although they regularly work 24 hours straight, civil defense members are forced to accept the fact that they are not able to save everyone trapped under the rubble. “There is no equipment,” Abu Khudair said, explaining that they lack bulldozers to remove large concrete blocks and electronic devices that could determine the victims’ locations. “We only work with human power. »
A particularly devastating situation stuck in Abu Khudair’s memory following a midnight bombing near a gas station in the southern Gaza town of Al-Qarara. “I went there and, at first, I found no victims,” he remembers. “Then I heard moaning and I walked towards the noise. I dug through the rubble and found two trapped legs, which I freed – they belonged to a 12-year-old girl named Aisha.” The girl told him that eight members of her family were trapped under the rubble, in addition to other families, including nine small children.
Despite the efforts of Abu Khudair and his colleagues, they simply did not have the means to save them. He described this situation as “one of the hardest moments I’ve ever experienced: leaving a place knowing that there are people alive under the rubble, but you can’t do anything for them, and that some of them will certainly die.”
In addition to trying to save people they don’t know every day, first responders also have to worry about their own families. Musa is away from his home and family and has been working around the clock since the first day of the war, staying at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital with his colleagues.
“In war, those of us on relief teams never know when our day will begin or end,” he explains. “For me, my day started on October 7 and it hasn’t ended yet. »
Far from her family, Musa does not know how she is doing, only receiving news by telephone. “Some days they take refuge in one of the schools due to the intensive shelling on our neighborhood in Al-Bureij camp, and other days they return home,” he said. “I miss my children as much as I miss them. »
Musa has only seen his wife and two children once in more than two months, the day after an airstrike near their home. “They told me that a house in the camp had been bombed,” Musa remembers. “I was very worried about my family. As the civil defense vehicle drove, we got closer and closer to the street where our house is located, until I found myself in front of the door of our building. »
The bombing, Musa continues, had targeted his uncle’s house, which is in the same building as his own family’s house. “I heard everyone screaming and crying. I went looking for my uncle, his children and everyone else in the house. I learned that my brother Abdul Rahman, aged 19, was with them, but I found no trace of him. His body had been cut into pieces and my sister only recognized him by the clothes he was wearing; she had bought them for him as a gift from Egypt a few days before the war. »
“I saw my children and my wife at that time, for a few moments,” Musa continues. “They were safe, but terrified. »
Despite the horrors they face, both Musa and Abu Khudair find true purpose in their work. “We think it’s our children, our brothers and sisters, our families that we are saving,” Musa explains. “We feel a sense of victory when we manage to safely remove someone from the rubble. But when we hear the cries for help from the children under the rubble, none of us can hold back our tears.”
“This is our job,” Abu Khudair said. “Even if Israel does not respect international law, the law is on our side and we are protected by the will of God. »
Ruwaida Kamal Amer is a freelance journalist from Khan Younis.
ED translation for the Palestine Media Agency