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Gaza: “I was so relieved I high fived the man who searched my bag”

03 Aug 2016

Médecins Sans Frontières Australian anaesthetist Paul Chan has recently arrived in Gaza for his first field assignment. He details the journey from Sydney to Gaza City.

“I’ve arrived safe and sound in Gaza City for the start of my Médecins Sans Frontières assignment and I start … with a weekend! The weekend here is Friday and Saturday. Médecins Sans Frontières has been running a surgical program here for several years where teams treat late complications of burns. Most of these have been sustained in the household, as electricity is erratic meaning people have had to light fires in their homes to cook. The majority of patients are under 15 years old. I’m here for a month. Pieces of the puzzle keep falling together – including that the international team is a small number of the actual Médecins Sans Frontières contingent. But back to the journey to get here.

“I’ve arrived safe and sound in Gaza City for the start of my Médecins Sans Frontières assignment and I start … with a weekend!"

The Erez Crossing

A major point for me was the Erez Crossing – a military checkpoint and one of the two only entries into Gaza. I thought something bad was going to happen. But it didn’t. The drive to get there goes along a high wall. First, a security gate then a few hundred metres walk to a glass passport control building.  When I go through my pass is organised without any fuss. When I explained that I was working with Médecins Sans Frontières doing humanitarian work, the passport control officer did her official things, smiled and in a kind voice explained what happened next, wished me the best, told me not to worry and that everything was going to be fine and sent me though the secure glass door onto the actual crossing.

It’s an 800m concrete walkway that’s fenced and turnstiled, passport controlled at a further two points. I rode in the walkway in the luggage trailer pulled by a motorbike. When the Médecins Sans Frontières driver introduced himself I treated him like a rockstar. I was so relieved I high fived the man who searched my bag. The crossing path opens into a rubbly carpark – my first look at the Gaza Strip itself. 

Médecins Sans Frontières House

Warm, warm, warm, warm, warm. Can only describe the remainder of the day like this. From the driver who had seen me with dinner plate eyes and then had me laughing for most of the drive to town, to every person I’ve met at the Médecins Sans Frontières office. Everyone has offered me the most generous welcome to Gaza. It’s just a mass of smiling faces, titles (that’s the operating theatre nurse, that’s the pharmacist) and well wishes (we thought you’d be wanting a sleep, how long did you travel?) – as one team leaves and another takes over. I kind of wonder what would be happening if Médecins Sans Frontières wasn’t here.

A Médecins Sans Frontières flag is on top of the apartment block I am housed in, also on the wall across the road that houses a clinic and across the wall of the headquarters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a medical institution exists like the way this one looks - it seems like it is filling a real hole here. For the minute I get few days’ breather. Sunday is screening day when we screen all the patients for the mission for fitness for surgery. Then theatre begins on Monday. The power just went out. I think the generator has kicked it back in again.