Friday, April 17, 2009

Norwegian doctor's presentation on Gaza attack leaves Chicago audience 'shell shocked'

Big H/T to Mondoweiss

I was a bit nervous ten minutes before the program was to start and only 20 people were seated in the cavernous Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. Perhaps people really have forgotten Gaza. Maybe they don’t want to be reminded that for 23 days, Israel carried out a planned, brutal assault that flattened buildings and shattered lives. Maybe they don’t want to hear from someone who spent two weeks in Gaza elbow deep in blood, repairing small bodies and comforting weeping relatives. Maybe people have moved on – eager for a new diplomatic initiative or perhaps onto the next tragedy – Afghanistan and Pakistan where the blood seems more fresh. Maybe they are more interested in the work of pirates rather than those who use governmental power to attack civilians and then continue to hold them under siege so reconstruction efforts are hampered.

I was wrong about the interest. Within the next half hour, the chapel slowly filled with people, perhaps reaching 200. Lots of college students, women in headscarves, and Arab families – young children in tow – sat spellbound as Mads Gilbert (pictured right in al-Shifa Hospital , photo from the Lancet), a Norwegian doctor who has spent several decades working with Palestinians, shared with the audience his most recent experience working at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza at the end of December when the timed Israeli assault began.

I was struck by Dr. Gilbert’s tone and manner. He spoke to the audience by walking up and down the aisle, looking at people directly and inviting them into his story. He was upfront about his politics and sympathies – against all killing of civilians, in solidarity with the oppressed (the Palestinians) and sympathetic to all who resist military occupation (be they Israeli or Palestinian). Occupation is the disease, said the doctor, and until it is ended, the patients (Palestinian and Israeli) will not achieve a healthy life.

Dr. Gilbert warned of the graphic nature of some of his photos, but explained that to understand the crisis in Gaza one must look at the realities. The most graphic, he explained were not necessarily the bloody stumps and ripped apart bodies (although I had a hard time looking at those), but the sorrowful, vacant look in some of the eyes of the children, the utter grief in the eyes of a mother, the look of submission in the eyes of an old man. One photo of a Palestinian farmer who lost a hand in an explosion from a missile, was upsetting, not because he lost his hand (which thankfully wasn’t shown in the photo) but because of his look of utter loss. “What will become of my life now,” said the farmer to Dr. Gilbert. “All I ever wanted was to farm my land. I am not political, nor care about the different factions. I just wanted to provide for my family. How can I do that now?”

Dr. Gilbert wove facts and figures into his narratives about patients’ lives and experiences during the three week assault. At one point in his presentation he stopped speaking and played a soundtrack he recorded of the night sounds of Gaza. For five minutes we in the audience listened quietly to the sound of the humming drones, distant explosions, rocket and machine gunfire. Imagine these sounds 24 hours a day, every day of the week, said Dr. Gilbert as he moved onto the next group of slides.

Photos of Shifa hospital, the epicenter of trauma treatment in the heart of Gaza City. Windows shattered and covered with paper. Cold hallways where relatives huddled outside operation rooms. Operating rooms that were used simultaneously for multiple operations so that supplies and electricity could be shared. A chest operation alongside a leg amputation on two patients. Doctors working on 3 hours of sleep a day. Female volunteer nurse helpers who showed up to lend a hand and stayed for weeks. All functioning with the constant sounds of sirens, shelling, explosions. Dr. Gilbert’s stories began to merge into one overwhelming picture of unending horror. But also, his photographs conveyed an amazing story of Palestinian resilience in face of so much death and destruction.

Dr. Gilbert gave the audience a reprieve from his stories by playing a lullaby, sung by a Palestinian singer to her children. Again, the audience sat still, some with tears rolling down their cheeks, as the photos of Palestinians in Gaza continued on the screen.

When he finally finished speaking (he spoke for two hours), the audience clapped and a few asked questions. I felt as if the audience was shell shocked. As if we were for the first time understanding a bit of the horror that is life in Gaza. The images, the sounds, the stories all bringing to life what we had witnessed (and protested) from afar a few months ago. I watched as after the talk, person after person (most of them Arab) went up to Dr. Gilbert to shake his hand, to thank him for his service, to tell him how good it feels to hear the truth from an eyewitness. One Palestinian-American girl, perhaps eight years old, stood in front of me and told the doctor, “You have given me hope, Dr. Gilbert. Because now I know we can make a difference. I don’t have to just sit at home and cry and be sad about what is happening in my country. I can go there and help the people, be a doctor like you who saves lives.” Dr. Gilbert gave her a pin that had two flags – Norwegian and Palestinian flags intertwined – and told her he hopes to see her in a free Palestine some day.

You can still catch Dr. Gilbert on his US tour in New York and Baltimore -

Health, Human Rights, and the War on Gaza: Evidence from the Frontlines


Friday, April 17, 1:00pm
NYU Kimmel Center, Rm 912
60 Washington Square South

Friday, April 17, 6:30pm
Barnard College
Held Auditorium, Barnard Hall
3009 Broadway, NY, NY


Thursday, April 16, 5:15pm
Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine
Tilghman Auditorium (Ground Floor of Turner Bldg)
720 Rutland Avenue


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