Interview
Change
Middle East
S&U interviews
War & peace
11 min read

Eye witness: life and death in Gaza’s European Hospital

Returning plastic surgeon Tim Goodacre reports on the struggles, the despair and the dignity of the people and the medics of Gaza during their long nightmare.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Medical staff stand beside a bed in which a man lies with an amputated leg.
Medics confer about a patient in Gaza's European Hospital.
Tim Goodacre

Tim Goodacre is a vastly experienced plastic surgeon who recently spent two weeks in a hospital in Khan Younis treating the extensive injuries of the people of Gaza. I caught up with him to ask about his experience there.  

Graham: Let me start by asking what was it like getting into Gaza? What was the process and how difficult was it to actually get in in the first place? 

Tim: We went in as an emergency medical team under the under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, which is coordinated with UN OCHR. It was easy obviously to get to Cairo. Then we joined a convoy, a group of cars convening in the small hours of the morning in Cairo and then being escorted across the Sinai desert. We got to the border in time for dusk. What was staggering at that stage was seeing the number of lorries lined up, waiting on the Egyptian side to get in. They were two deep on one side, one deep on the other with a thin passageway through which we could drive through for mile after mile after mile of these lorries. 

Was this humanitarian aid sent from other nations? 

Absolutely. It was aid labelled from different countries or agencies. Crossing Rafah the next morning was all pretty haphazard and chaotic, but we met our driver on the other side. We then had to travel to Khan Yunis on the coast road because it was the safest part of the south Gaza strip. We went through a route called the Philadelphia Road, which is a gap between the two borders. As we drove along, we immediately were jumped on by some young lads who had put razor wire across the road. We picked up two of them who hung onto the car each side, with our window s firmly shut. As we sped along, they were our ‘protectors’, taking a pitiful sum to ensure that we would not be stopped at further razor wire and our vehicle plundered. It was our first experience of the lawlessness that's inherent at the moment in Gaza. 

All along that side of the road there were people putting up new tents after a recent further mass displacement, as far as the eye could see. It made a huge impact on me - the devastating plight of the people who were there. It looked like those pictures of Glastonbury or Woodstock, where as far as you could see, the rolling fields or sand dunes or whatever were totally covered in makeshift dwellings. It was pretty cold and windy. And subsequently, while we were there, it rained an awful lot and your heart just went out to these people.  

So these were people living in tents and temporary shelters? 

 Well, not really. They're barely tents. They're just finding flimsy bits of wood, putting them up and nailing them together. And these are not just the very poorest of the poor. This is everybody. Many of them were people from very well-to-do houses whose families have been displaced. I've worked in many parts of the world where there's poverty, but I’ve never seen so many people displaced.  

One of the things that's remarkable however is the relative cleanliness, the desire to maintain dignity in the most appalling circumstances. But a young lad who’s now a young doctor (who I have worked with for a decade now) came to see me and he was the most dejected person I've ever met. He said to me ‘they've taken away my dignity’. The abject pain in his face was something that I won't forget.  

You’ve been to Gaza many times before. What was different about this time? And you've seen it in the aftermath of previous wars and conflicts. What was what was particularly different this time? 

 It's utterly different – it’s the displaced population with nowhere to go and seeking shelter. When I first went in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge, I was taken to a huge neighbourhood of northeast Gaza, which had been flattened and at the time the impact on me was extraordinary. When I’ve visited subsequently over the last decade, they will show you this bombed out building and that flattened area, but I've never seen such vast numbers of displaced people. On the second day we moved into the European Gaza Hospital (EGH), which is where we were going to stay for the two weeks we were there. Inching slowly along amidst endless hordes of people walking around, seeing the dejection, despair, the hopelessness with nowhere to go - this for me is what defines this whole episode and makes it very different from others. This is in no way a diminution of other conflicts and human tragedies, but when there was bombing in Baghdad or in Kiev and Ukraine, people might go into underground shelters - there are places they can perhaps go to escape. Even in massacres such as in Darfur or Congo, there are places to run to. There is nothing like that in Gaza. 

Was there a pattern to the kind of medical emergencies and wounds that you were having to deal with? 

 The vast majority of injuries were the impact of high explosives, so we naturally saw quite a lot of burns, although the majority of severe burns alone were being managed by the Red Cross team also at EGH. Some of them were people who had been crushed and pulled out of buildings which had collapsed. But that was that was the minority. The majority of our cases were direct results of bomb blasts. Every time you hear a bomb, somebody is being killed, yet many others are caught on the fringe of that. Shrapnel travels at astronomical speeds and hits people in in a completely random way. These injuries are devastating. There were scores of people coming in with limbs missing. Seeing somebody with a leg off at the thigh, a leg off below the knee, an arm ripped off was all too common. It was hard to take in - you have to become somewhat immune to the backstory behind each dreadful injury, and concentrate on the carnage in front of you, to be able to deal with the constant onslaught of cases. 

How were the medics coping with it? You were there for two weeks. They are there for months, presumably on end? 

 I think it's incredibly important that we don't focus on the visiting medics. I usually peeled off at about 9pm or so in the evening - I had to go to bed and had to have a rest, but there were people trying to work through the night. What I want to focus on is the local people, particularly a young colleague, Ahmed, who was 36 years-old. He was statesmanlike in his ability to pull things together. His family are actually mostly in Dublin as they've got Irish passports. I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for that young Gazan man who shared his room with me.  

He has been managing to create a team who work alongside him, since many of the staff who had worked at the hospital before (some of whom we had trained over several years in limb reconstruction) were not there. That is because they might not be alive, or having to support their displaced families, or simply are afraid to travel in daily to the hospital, or whatever. It is a huge demand on individual doctors to leave a family group (who invariably try to stay together, so that if they are bombed, they all die together and do not have to be a sole survivor.) to then work away from such possible loss of all their family members. It's an incredible sacrifice to be working in medical care when your family are all huddled together in a place where they may all lose their life, and that gets to them in the end.  

The orthopaedic side is almost on its knees. Most of the system in the hospital is utterly on its knees. There were early years medical students who had been taught quickly how to manage wounds and to skin graft. They haven't got any pay, but some people have given a little money to my colleague’s account to try and give them some support. There were IT students and all sorts of others pulling together. How people can work in in such adversity and make things happen is quite a testament to the to the strength of humanity.  

It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed. 

What was it like living under the bombardment, which was presumably pretty constant during your time there? 

There may have been the odd period of four or five hours when there was no sound of close bombardment at all, although during that time there was probably small arms fire going on somewhere. But otherwise, it was relentless. One became somewhat used to the bombs in the distance, but when they're close by… Every time one of these bombs goes off, there are people dying. And that really that played on your mind. So huge numbers were seeking shelter anywhere in the vicinity of the hospital. If you can imagine a hospital corridor where every route is full of makeshift shelters, and you just go up around a stairwell and on the corner of each stair, there will be a family which will be hanging drapes up, trying to find some sort of privacy and dignity among the utter destitution.  

I found it very difficult to sleep during those times. The hospital is in a quadrant, a square. On one corner there was a supermarket which latterly was hit by an F16 delivered weapon. You could hear the sound of the rocket go off alongside the scream of the low flying fighter jet, and the whole building shook. There's also the incessant sound of drones. It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed.  

It made me realise what soldiers undergo when they get what used to be called shell shock. There, even if you're not injured yourself, this constant shocking damage gets to you. I knew we had the knowledge that after a short time, we would be getting out - but it made me realise how tough Ahmed and others working there have to be. It will be having a devastating impact on the population, and for a nation.  

I imagine the psychological effects of that are going to last for a long time in the lives of these people. You don't get over that quickly. If you live with that level of tension, thinking any moment now, I could die, that must stay with you and the marks of that stay for a long time. 

I'm sure that's true. I'm not an expert in PTSD and things like that. Ahmed is a Muslim and said to me more than once that when you believe in an afterlife, you believe that your time will come at some point, and you accept that. We don't know when it is or where it is, but it will come. I have frequently wondered whether any of the fighter jet pilots have ever experienced themselves what it’s like to be underneath the impact of one of their weapons? Having felt somewhat what it is like to be on the other side of such an onslaught, I do wonder whether very many of those involved in ordering conflict really have any kind of understanding of what devastation feels like, when there is nowhere to run? I fear for what this conflict does to the humanity of both sides. 

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, 

Did you see any sign of hope or anything that gave you a sense of the way out of this? 

 The sense of hope is within the people who are there. There are many people who say they still really don't want to leave. They feel this passionately. It's their land. They do want to see a new Gaza. I tried to be somebody who lifted spirits. Communities can be rebuilt and there may be a new future which will come from the dust. I've been in touch with people in my University Medical school in Oxford to see whether we can do something about getting these young people's education continued.  

You can imagine there wasn’t a lot of laughter in the whole environment, but on the few occasions when I did gather together with my colleague’s small group of young students and volunteers, usually late into the night, we would eat whatever food goodies they had to hand, and their sense of fun would burst out. Together there was a very strong sense of community amongst them. 

How did your Christian faith inform the way you interacted with the situation? How did your Christian faith help you process what you were seeing and experiencing there? 

 I must say it was a deeply spiritual time for me. It was absolutely powerful to me to know that God cares and loves each and every one of these people. I longed to organise a football game with the kids. I was told that they had tried to do that, and it had become too dangerous. So there seemed to be no organisation around looking after the well-being of the children, their education, or the deeper impact on them of this war. People were jammed into the hospital, obviously because it was seen as a safe space, and it was humbling to think that us (as foreign workers) being there made them feel somewhat safer. It humbled me immensely.  

I felt nothing but a sense of privilege in being a witness to all this. I was reading the Psalms regularly in daily prayer. There's also something about that land being the place where God himself suffered in Christ and went through his own agony, and that the Holy Family escaped through Gaza to Egypt.  

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, a privilege and an honour to have such access which comes with having my particular background of skills and past history with Gaza. God is over all these matters, and we are compelled to respond. 

 

Tim Goodacre is a Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon based in Oxford, with extensive experience of working in diverse environments outside the UK. He is immediate past Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. 

Article
Change
Community
Politics
6 min read

Camden: what’s up in Keir’s backyard?

The new Prime Minister’s constituency has valuable lessons for the country.

Simon Walsh is a communications consultant, journalist and non-stipendiary priest in the Diocese of London.

Kier Starmer walks along a residential development's path with two other people.
Starmer and local councillors in Camden.

‘What good ever came out of Nazareth?’ was asked of Jesus. The same might now be said of Camden, which lies at the heart of the Holborn & St Pancras constituency. A safe Labour seat since the 1980s, its present incumbent is Sir Keir Starmer who has been handed the keys to Downing Street in the General Election.

His wallet apparently has on it ‘Take me home to Kentish Town’. Two buses link Kentish Town, where he lives, with Whitehall – a route of about four miles. He will go into government with a very full in-tray, and many of them are issues he knows first-hand from his own constituency. I know them too, having lived there for 20 years.

Sometimes I cover services for a clergy colleague in the nearby parish of St Mary’s, Somers Town. The church is on Eversholt Street which runs along the eastern side of Euston station, incidentally the capital’s first mainline railway terminus. Last year, as I arrived for a mass one rainy Saturday morning, a random group of people sheltered in the doorway. They were, I discovered, addicts waiting for a drugs drop. Towards the end of mass, one of the group – a young woman – came into the back of church and found a pew in which to start preparing her fix. Once I had disrobed, I asked if she wouldn’t mind doing it somewhere else.

Another time, in the same church, a young woman from Spain was asking for money. She had answered a job advert on social media to come and work on a chicken farm. Having arrived and paid her accommodation for a week, she found there was no chicken farm, and trying to find other work was almost impossible because of paperwork. What could we do to help? The church itself is in dire need of financial support too.

St Mary’s Flats... were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity.

Somers Town was transformed 100 years ago when its energetic parish priest, Fr Basil Jellicoe, created the first housing association. Dismayed by the squalor of Victorian tenements, he set about raising funds for The St Pancras House Improvement Society. Jellicoe was only in his mid-20s but had a solid Anglo-Catholic background founded on mission and a heart for the poor. The cramped and filthy conditions with extreme poverty were ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace’ – for him, the opposite to the sacraments.

By the time Jellicoe moved from the parish in 1934, the slums had been cleared and a number of the new blocks built, the first being St Mary’s Flats, with others given saints’ names. They were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity. Tragically, having worn himself out he died at the age of 36. His legacy is one of praxis – active Christianity meeting social problems where they are – and his model became the blueprint for many other housing associations since.

No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close. 

The area remains a swirl of social problems in addition to the drugs. Mental health issues are rife. There are plans to redevelop St Pancras Hospital which houses mental health services. The area suffers from traffic and noise pollution, and lacks communal spaces. Camden Council recently saw fit take one corner of a public green in Somers Town on which to build a tower block of multi-million pound flats, handy for nearby St Pancras Station. Crime rates are high with muggings and mobile phone thefts a daily reality. Last year, as mourners left a funeral one Saturday afternoon at St Aloysius Church just a few streets down from St Mary’s, a drive-by-shooting injured six people. Starmer called the incident ‘appalling’ and spoke of ‘extra patrols and community support’ after a conversation with police.

The area has become highly expensive. Local businesses are being priced out by increased rents. Very little social housing has been built this century. The average house price in NW1, which encompasses the Nash terraces of Regents Park, the council blocks and social housing of Somers Town, is £1.3 million. A two-bed flat is in excess of half a million quid. No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close – four in as many years recently. In his acceptance speech in Camden Council’s offices near St Pancras station, close to the world-renowned Crick Institute and Facebook’s UK headquarters, Starmer namechecked the mythical ‘girl from Somers Town’ and his hope for her future.

Charles Dickens went to school around here and knew these streets well. His 1848 novel Dombey & Son detailed the destruction and chaos caused in the area by the building of the railway line through it. 175 years later, it has been HS2, the great White Elephant which has dug up streets, seen whole blocks of accommodation and hotels demolished, diverted roads, and axed much-loved institutions like the Bree Louise pub. There has been no benefit to locals so far (quite the opposite, in fact) and it is a stain on both Labour and Conservative administrations. Sir Keir says he is furious at the ‘big hole’ left by the down-tools project. There is fear now that the redundant land will be subject to a ‘gold rush’ as developers circle to pick up some prime real estate.

Interviewed in June by the Camden New Journal, Starmer said: ‘The government has earmarked money for Euston. I want to see that money and obviously, if we come into power, we’ll see through all this money – and not stripped away from other projects which is the usual trick.’ He also said: ‘The other thing is we need housing. Camden desperately needs housing as many places do. So we will use it – if we are privileged to come into power – as part of our plan for 1.5 million homes.’

His manifesto has five pledges: 

  • Kickstart economic growth 

The cost-of-living crisis is biting hard here and the inequalities are stark. People need real money.

  • Make Britain a clean energy superpower 

It’s going to need more than a few on-street charging points for electric vehicles. And the carbon footprint of that HS2 project? 

  • Take back our streets 

He wants to halve crime rates but London has around 106 crimes per 1,000 people and his own constituency feels less safe than it used to. 

  • Break down barriers to opportunity 

Camden already ranks highly in the deprivation index where barriers are concerned: schools, homes, jobs… 

  •  Build an NHS fit for the future 

Again, the hospitals and GP services are cracking – high demand combined with under-investment is deadly. 

A prophet is not welcome in his own country, it was said. Although the new Prime Minister was elected with a majority in his home seat, it was down to 18,884 votes from the 2019 endorsement of 36,641 votes – a drop of almost 50%. In this election, an Independent candidate called Andrew Feinstein polled 7,312 votes with his pledge to improve life for local residents. Starmer’s constituents will be counting on him to fix the nation along with the problems on their own streets. Otherwise, safe seat or not, he may no longer be welcome in Camden either.