UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

UNICEF staff perseveres under difficult and dangerous conditions in Gaza

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF OPT/2009/El Baba
A Palestinian child walking in Rafah, southern Gaza.

NEW YORK, USA, 10 January 2009 – UNICEF has 10,000 staff working around the world in a wide range of environments, including conflicts such as the one now under way in the Gaza Strip. Ten stalwart UNICEF staff members have remained in Gaza throughout the two-week crisis there, working under very difficult and dangerous conditions in an effort to bring some relief to children in need.

One of those workers, Sajy, a native of Gaza, has been a Reporting Officer in the territory for the past three years, responsible for keeping UNICEF abreast of activities on the ground. Sajy attended university in the United States before returning home in 2005. He lives in western Gaza, where he is witnessing the suffering of neighbours and kin.

In a telephone interview with UNICEF Radio yesterday, he described his life and work in the midst of crisis.

‘Nowhere is safe’
According to Sajy, the current situation is the worst in memory – either his own or that of much older Gazans.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF OPT/2009/El Baba
Families take shelter at UN school in Gaza.

“It has never been worse,” he said. “Today witnessed a huge escalation on the ground. The last two days, the bombing was only on the outskirts of Gaza City. But now, as I speak to you, about 10 targets have been hit in Gaza City in the last 30 minutes. Gaza City by itself has 400,000 people, and half of it is children.”

In fact, Sajy explained, security is an issue throughout the densely populated territory.

“The whole of the Gaza Strip right now is witnessing this bombardment,” he said. “Nowhere is safe, because everybody in Gaza happens to live next to Hamas headquarters, or next to a police station, or next to a mosque, or next to somebody who belongs to Hamas.”

Working under stress
The UNICEF staff itself has not been spared from the consequences of the conflict.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF OPT/2008/El Baba
Palestinian families leave their hometown of Rafah, near the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt.

Although none of the staff has been injured, one UNICEF worker’s brother was killed. Another staff member lives in a building that was shelled; three people died in the apartment below hers.

“We are working under stressful conditions because we all have personal issues with our own families,” said Sajy, whose wife is eight months pregnant.

Stress arises not only from the constant danger but also from the lack of essential goods and services.

“The grocery stores are all empty,” said Sajy. “You cannot buy bread, you can’t buy milk, you can’t buy cheese. I know of many people who do not have food. Bread is like gold.”

Impact on child health
Perhaps most worrying is the conflict’s impact on the health of children, who comprise more than half of Gaza’s population.

“When the campaign started, we were focused on health because we need to make sure that our hospitals are fully equipped with what they need,” Sajy recalled. “We have pre-positioned [supplies] in our UNICEF storage in Gaza. So we supplied the Ministry of Health on the first and second day of the strike with station kits and some first-aid kits.”

Though staff members’ ability to move supplies since then has been severely limited, Sajy added, the field health officer in Gaza has continued checking on urgent needs at all nurseries and UNICEF-supported clinics.

Against the odds
Another major concern is the conflict’s long-term psychological effect on children. Many parents have called a UNICEF Gaza hotline “trying to get information about how to deal with their kids’ fear of the darkness, fear of incursions and fear of explosions,” said Sajy.

He pointed to the case of one boy who was unable to speak for five days after his family home was rocked by a large explosion. In another case, a formerly active young girl became pale and depressed.

Sajy recounted a conversation with the girl: “I asked her, ‘What is wrong with you?’ And she said, ‘I dreamt last night an airplane came and bombed our house and killed my little brother.’”

As the number of children being killed, injured or traumatized in the fighting continues to climb, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is becoming more desperate every day. And still Sajy perseveres, along with the rest of UNICEF’s staff in the territory, against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Elizabeth Kiem and Tim Ledwith contributed to this story.


 

 

Audio

9 January 2009: Sajy, a UNICEF staff member in Gaza, talks about living and working in the midst of crisis.
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