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Gaza's Mayhem Surgeon Uses Camera to Chronicle Victims of Violent Conflict

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Surgeon Uses Camera to Chronicle Victims of Violent Conflict

Grim Picture of Gaza's Mayhem
Surgeon Uses Camera to Chronicle Victims of Violent Conflict

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page A30

GAZA CITY -- Jumaa Saqqa, a senior physician at Gaza's Shifa Hospital, shuffled through a thick stack of photographs like a deck of playing cards. These are cherished possessions -- pictures of friends and neighbors, babies and children, famous people, militants, elderly men and women. Occasionally his eyes lit up as if he'd found an ace, and he flipped the picture on the desk.

"Look at this girl," he said. Staring up was the blackened face of a horribly burned child, teeth sparkling white, eyes open, hair singed. Amany Awawda, about 11, killed 18 months ago, Saqqa explained. "An Israeli tank bombing while she was at home with her mother. Her mother also died in the same incident. She was sleeping beside her."

He stopped at the picture of his former neighbor, Jehad Amarin, a leader of the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the father of eight, killed a year ago. It was a particularly difficult case, not just because he was a friend for 10 years, but because the body was in so many pieces and Saqqa had to sew it back together for the funeral. "I had his scalp. There was no head at all. He was driving in a car and was shot by a rocket. He was sitting beside the driver. The rocket came directly to his head."

Most of Saqqa's photos showed little more than mangled body parts -- heads without bodies, bodies without heads, hands holding a heart. No one would recognize most of the people depicted, but Saqqa appeared to know every one of them.

"I went to school to study medicine, but I never thought I'd see such violence," said Saqqa, 45, a soft-spoken but authoritative-sounding surgeon with five teenage sons and a shock of white hair crowning his forehead. "This is not the way to liberate our land."

Like so many others in the Gaza Strip, Saqqa is disenchanted with the Palestinian leadership, fatigued by the fighting, and he longs for a better, more normal life. These days, he said, there is no central authority, no strategy for winning, no logic behind fighting Israeli tanks and helicopters with assault rifles and stones.

"Our force is so little that it's not enough to pressure the Israeli side. Suicide bombers have not changed the strategic path; they just create revenge from Israel against us. It happens with every suicide attack," he said, saying that helicopter gunships always arrive the day of a suicide attack. "With the fighting, nothing improves, and everything is getting worse. People are getting killed, houses are being destroyed, and the reason is the fighting."
Bearing Witness

To bear witness to what he has seen, Saqqa began snapping pictures of people brought to the hospital's morgue and emergency room shortly after the start of the current Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Today, a cabinet beside his desk is crammed with photo albums and stacks of snapshots -- in all, more than 2,000 pictures of about 900 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military in the past four years.

"I'll make a book to show how the Palestinian people are suffering," Saqqa said. "I want to document what Israeli forces have done, to explain that we have a right to live like any other nation. Israel is spreading information all over the world that we are killers. I think this will change the picture about Palestinians and show that we are victims, not killers."

Saqqa said he was initially driven by intense sadness at the loss of so many civilians and friends who he knew were not fighters. As the photo collection grew, he discovered that it was a valuable tool in explaining to foreign delegations the consequences of Israel's use of heavy weapons.

The carnage, he said, "creates the desire for revenge. I don't want to react, and I teach my kids not to react, but for others, it creates a thirst for revenge, and they don't care, even if they lose themselves."

That primal urge is understandable, he said, as is the impulse to fight for freedom, independence and an end to Israel's 37-year occupation of Palestinian lands. But Saqqa sees the result up close, literally carries it home with him at night -- his wife complains of pulling pieces of flesh out of the pockets of his white medical smock.

"We have two ways: to fight, or to leave Israel in peace," he said, "and years have taught me that fighting got us nothing."
Road to Medicine

Saqqa said his fascination with death began when he was a teenager wandering the dusty streets of the Jabalya refugee camp, north of Gaza City. In the years between the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars, Israel was consolidating its occupation of the Gaza Strip.

"There was no morgue in those days, and when a person was killed, he was put under a big tree for all to come and see, and I would go to see every martyr," Saqqa recalled. "Many were killed by a small bullet, and I was astonished and surprised that they died from such a small entrance. I wasn't able to imagine the anatomy of the body, and how dangerous a bullet could be, and I said, 'If I was a doctor, I could save them.' "

His brother, Yousef, was born with webbed hands, the three outside fingers fused together. "When he was 5 years old, he complained to my father and said, 'Please give me surgery. I'd like to be like other people,' " Saqqa said. "And he was taken to the hospital and he died on the table. He had a seizure. I was 15 . . . and I said to myself, 'If I was a doctor, I could save him.' "

Saqqa followed his instincts. His father, a laundryman, had to provide for eight other children, so Saqqa paid his own way and won scholarships to the School of Medicine at Tanta University in northern Egypt, where he met his future wife, Hanan, who was studying law. They married and in 1986 settled in Gaza City, where Saqqa joined the staff of Shifa, the largest and most advanced hospital in the Gaza Strip.

Besides work, Saqqa's major preoccupation is keeping his family safe. The couple is expecting a sixth child this month.

"My children are excited by what they see and hear, but I try to watch them and give them instruction that this is not the way to liberate our land," Saqqa said. "I give them a computer and keep them away from other children who could affect them. But despite that, they try to share in the intifada. They obey me, but against their will."

Saqqa said that his view of himself and what he does began to change about three years ago, "when our government wanted to increase the number of our martyrs" and, at the same time, "the Israeli army changed its policies and became more aggressive. They started using excessive force," and the number of Palestinian civilian deaths skyrocketed.

"Saving people who are fighting for our land is my duty. I save lives, and that's a kind of struggle," he said. "I used to consider myself a fighter in my white coat, but nowadays, I don't think this is a method of liberation, and I consider myself just a doctor because the fighting has become too much of a burden."
A Phone Call

About 5:20 one morning in March, Saqqa got a phone call. Israeli aircraft had fired three missiles into Gaza City, and he was needed at the hospital. When he got there, a crowd was gathering outside. Ambulances and cars packed with armed men were blaring horns and racing to the front entrance to unload the wounded. Inside, the commotion was deafening, chaotic, threatening.

Saqqa, who serves as an administrator as well as a surgeon, snapped into action, jostling with the crowds and muscling them out of the way, conducting preliminary examinations, barking instructions to nurses and orderlies, directing the most severely wounded to emergency operating rooms nearby. It was not an overwhelming event, as far as these things go -- seven dead and 15 wounded.

This attack, however, was different. Soon the grounds outside the hospital echoed with the cracks of gunfire and angry, mournful cries from nearby mosques. The target had been Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader and co-founder of the radical Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. The Israelis had been successful, and Yassin's body was brought to Saqqa's hospital.

Saqqa took a few snapshots of Yassin -- his eyes open and bulging, the top of his head sliced off, exposing his brain -- then put his camera away. He said that picture was his last.

"I have enough to express the violence," he explained. "And I'm depressed."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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