Thursday, January 15, 2009

life during wartime

John Ging, of the UN's refugee agency in Palestine, has been providing daily videolink updates to the UN press corps from Gaza about the deteriorating situation there. Last night and this morning, UNRWA's main compound was repeatedly hit by artillery and white phosphorus, although thankfully no one was killed.

Ging's report of this harrowing event makes for remarkable and important reading, so I'm posting my transcription of it here:

It started last night at about 10 o'clock, with a strike on one of our vehicles as he was transporting one of our staff home ... in the immediate vicinity of the compound itself, less than a kilometer from the compound, and he was on his way back, having discharged his passengers ... when the car was reportedly struck by a missile in the engine block and the driver, because it was one of these hard vehicles with some armored protection, was thankfully alive although injured and taken directly to [a] hospital with shrapnel wounds in his leg. He's in reasonably good shape today so we're expecting him to make a slow, because shrapnel is a serious injury, but we're confident he'll make a a full recovery. The reason I say "reportedly" about the details of the incident is that we haven't been able to since then get access to the vehicle because the area in which it was struck was under heavy shelling from then on. ... This area, where the compound is located in the residential part of the Gaza City has been under relentless bombardment form artillery and tank fire through tonight and through today. This morning it became particularly intense. Our compound suffered from a lot of shrapnel flying through from targets that were hit adjacent and in vicinity of the compound. At about 9 o'clock this morning we had about 700 people [who] fled their apartments in the area and sought refuge in our vocational training center which was part of the complex here. I might also mention at this point that we have been in continuous liaison with the Israeli liaison office, reps of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, about last night's incident and also about the firing close to the compound and also the firing on the buildings, the residential apartment blocks in this area. When people were fleeing towards us we were again in ongoing communication with the liaison people, telling people how significant the impact was of these shellings. ... Within one hour of the 700 arriving into our vocational training center, the center was struck was either a tank round or an artillery shell -- I'm not so expert to know [which] -- but it was an explosion which caused 3 injuries. Shrapnel injuries. Thankfully, not serious, although the explosion itself was very significant and the pictures will bear that out, so we feel very fortunate in fact that we didn't have a large casualty toll. Of course we redoubled our liaison with the IDF. ... We were highlighting that again, there were great dangers here, particularly noteworthy that we had 5 trucks full of fuel ready of course since early morning to be dispatched to resupply various centers and also water pumping stations and sewage stations ... but they were stuck here in the compound and we alerted the Israeli Defense Forces of their exact location. Then within about an hour my staff were told that-- we heard a large explosion and we then were told by our staff that there was a fire in the workshops area, that it had been struck, so that is exactly the area where these trucks were parked, and very quickly the staff deployed to move the trucks out of the way from the fire. As they were doing so, a number of other rounds were also fired into that area. We counted 6 in total, and I had 2 international staff present as part of the group that were there, and they described to me that these rounds exploded with a burst of what a burst of what appeared to be phosphorus. It looked like phosphorus. It smelled like phosphorus. It burned like phosphorus. That's why I'm calling it phosphorus. I don't know how we were so lucky that none of them were injured or killed, but they of course ran for their lives and the place went up in flames. Our workshop was the part that was hit most severely. It went on fire, as did part of the warehouse. Of course we had to take cover until we got further reassurances that there wouldn't be further firing, and that took some considerable time, about 45 minutes. So then when we then ventured out again the first priority was to get the trucks out of there. Again fortunately none of them were struck and none of them were besides the area that was on fire, so the first priority was to get them out of the vicinity, and then to try to deal with the fire. The fire service couldn't get access to the area because of the shelling, which continued ... and the compound was cut off. We couldn't do much except to evacuate the cars and equipment we could retrieve safely. but of course as you can imagine it was a dangerous area. There were exploding petrol tanks, and cars caught fire in the garage itself. It became very dangerous very very quickly. Thankfully, after about another 2 hours the fire service did get here, but unfortunately it was too late to save the warehouse where we had hundreds of tonnes of food and medicine that was to be dispatched today, distributed to the food centers, the health centers, and of course the shelters. We have over 40,000. During the day today that number has grown again by a significant 3000 more. We had to open 5 more shelters. [feed from Gaza cuts off briefly] ... We did not get the fire under control so the warehouse was completely destroyed. It took 6 hours to prevent the fire from going further. So there was a massive effort all day to prevent the compound from burning down. At one point the intensity of the heat and flames and burning was such that we feared it would move from one building to another, as it had done from the workshop to the warehouse. But the heroic effort of the fire service and our staff here prevented that from happening. So the fire is finally under control. It's burning away, smoldering away at the moment. What does it mean for our operations? It presents us with a new challenge. This is the hub of our operations, the nerve center of our operations, the central warehouse here. But of course, we have to adapt to the new challenge and we are opening up other warehouses outside of the compound so that we can keep the operation going. We continue to bring in through the crossing points, the trucking into Gaza in the northern area was cut off by the military operations, so we brought in supplies into our southern warehouses today and we hope to be able to redeploy those to this half of the Gaza strip tomorrow. but there was no opportunity to do so today. ... We have to keep going, notwithstanding the dangers and the risks and the new challenges we face. I will put it to you this way: we had firsthand experience today in this compound with what the poor people of Gaza have been living with for the past 20 days and nights.

Ging was then asked about statements from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other reports that Israel's strike was in response to fire coming from or near the compound. He bluntly responded:

We have public statements and we have reality. Over the last period of this conflict we have seen the public statements have to catch up with the reality. This is another example. There were no militants in the compound. There was no firing from the compound, and in all of the official correspondence we've had with our interlocutors on the Israeli military side and also on the diplomatic side, there's been no representation to us that there were militants in the compound or firing from the compound.

OCHA chief John Holmes, after saying it was "hard to find the right words" to describe the event, said in his typically dry way that "if Israel is indeed trying to avoid UN buildings, as I'm sure they are and they've told us before they are, the least you can say is that they're not succeeding."

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