Edinburgh charity workers risk their lives in Gaza

A Mercy Corps truck with plasting sheeting heads for Gaza. Picture: contributed
A Mercy Corps truck with plasting sheeting heads for Gaza. Picture: contributed
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IT is a war which has shocked the world, as stark images of the horrors in Gaza highlight a conflict seemingly without end, and one which in just a few weeks has claimed thousands of lives and torn thousands more from their homes and families.

The humanitarian situation has been described as one at breaking point with around 240,000 people displaced, left without basic supplies and nowhere safe to shelter. Political interventions have repeatedly faltered as ceasefires are broken within hours, while on the ground the United Nations (UN) try to find a way to help those caught up in the fighting.

A Palestinian boy injured in an air strike receives treatment. Picture: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

A Palestinian boy injured in an air strike receives treatment. Picture: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

And working alongside them amidst the chaos are staff from Edinburgh-based charity Mercy Corps, which after the UN has the largest international humanitarian aid presence on the ground.

The charity has 87 staff members and a network of more than 50 community-based organisations in the Gaza Strip where it is working to keep innocent civilians, on all sides, safe.

It has already provided assistance in the form of food and other essential items to around 100,000 families who have had to flee their homes in the regions of Khan Younis, Rafah, Gaza City, and northern Gaza.

Some of the items being delivered include canned meat and beans, dried pasta, rice, powdered milk and cooking oil which are put into aid parcels and can last a family up to ten days. Other items provided include wet wipes, disposable nappies, soap, sanitary napkins, toothpaste and toothbrushes which make day-to-day living a little more bearable.

One Mercy Corps employee on the front line, Ahmad Hegazy, 31, has been helping deliver hygiene and food parcels since July 8 and told the Evening News of the terror faced by civilians in a “catastrophic situation”.

“Gaza City is the main area and all of the people who have fled have come to Gaza City because it’s the most central place and the safest place now,” he explained.

“What we have done so far is co-ordinated with the UN because they are stretched to capacity and I have been in many of the schools the UN are sponsoring, that were opened as shelters, and in the classrooms you can find more than five families or 30 people in one classroom.

“Now the number of people who have fled is more than 250,000 and they are scattered and all over the city.”

Mr Hegazy, who is one of three emergency response leaders in the city, said the team were also distributing medical supplies to hospitals.

“The situation in general here is very, very bad – our only power plant that we have in the Gaza Strip was shelled a few days ago and we are out of electricity so we are working with generators.

“The team were planning to hand out more parcels on Friday but were stopped after the planned ceasefire collapsed.The truce was broken off suddenly and we had to evacuate because we needed to go to a safer place,” he added.

“The place where I am living, the day before yesterday, was like fireworks in my neighbourhood for the whole night, and the shelling and bombing makes night look like day. Now the truce has been broken, the situation is going to escalate.”

The constant horrors are unavoidable. Mr Hegazy said he had met a women who had been forced to flee her home with eight members of her family in the middle of heavy bombardment from Israeli forces. In the fighting she lost her daughter and now she does not know whether she is alive or dead.

In the schools which have been transformed into make-shift shelters, the situation is deteriorating. There are no cleaning supplies or ­medical equipment, while civilians – often young children – ­continue to pour in with wounds or burns.

“People want it to end – it’s crazy,” Mr Hegazy said. “We are out of fuel, out of electricity, water, medical supplies, and imagine between 2000 and 5000 people living in one shelter.”

The situation is particularly traumatic for Mr Hegazy too as he is expecting his first child with his wife, Rana, 25, in September.

“I truly hope that this will not last until then, I think we won’t survive for ten or 20 more days so I don’t want to see her having to give birth in this as an option,” he added.

“It’s not a life it’s a struggle – it’s catastrophic. Right now this is extreme, this is too much for everybody here.”

Stu Willcuts, director of Mercy Corps’ Gaza humanitarian response, also mirrored Mr Hegazy’s fears saying the region is “on the verge of collapse”.

“We have maxed out the capacity of the humanitarian community to respond – 44 per cent of Gaza is a no-go zone,” he explained. “There are virtually no safe places any more.”

Mr Willcuts described living conditions for civilians as ­horrendous and said many of their staff were putting their lives on the line to help.

“People’s nerves are definitely getting frayed at this point,” he added.

“Just a few days ago Mercy Corps staff were on an aid convoy in Eastern Gaza and a shell landed 30 meters from the truck. Shrapnel went all over.

“They had a decision to make right then, whether to continue with the delivery or to turn around but they knew people were waiting for what they were delivering and needed it badly so they decided to press on. People who cannot go to the shelters will often go to the hospitals and pitch a tent or hang blankets outside and just sleep on the ground because that feels like a safer place to be.”

One Edinburgh resident who has spent time in Gaza is 28-year-old Emily Gilloran, who works as an assistant programme officer.

Last year Ms Gilloran spent seven months as a reporting officer with the charity running psychosocial programmes for children, providing basic needs support for families and running programmes to develop entrepreneurship and women’s involvement in the tech sector.

Ms Gilloran said she had been struck by the “massive differences” from when she was in Gaza to now. “People are genuinely scared now whereas before they were focused on the future and there was hope around – I spent a lot of my time with young women who were my age and they were thinking of their careers and developing their families and wanting the best for them. Now all they want to do is survive.”

She added: “When I call my friends I don’t really ask ‘How are you?’ because the answer is just ‘I’m alive’ which sounds dramatic but it’s the truth.” Despite the constant threat to their lives the Mercy Corps staff are still striving to help the civilians but they need more support to continue their work.

Ali MacLeod, Mercy Corps’ director of fundraising, said: “Our Edinburgh team is working hard to support our operations on the ground in Gaza.

“Our programmes, communications and finance staff are liaising every day with the team in Gaza, when electricity permits, to support them in the risky and dangerous environment they are operating in. Our fundraising team is working to raise additional funds which will help get people the food and emergency items they need.

“Mercy Corps is Edinburgh’s international development charity and we need Edinburgh to get behind us to provide emergency relief to the women, men and children of Gaza who are just trying to survive.”

For more information or to donate to Mercy Corps visit www.mercycorps.org.uk