Gaza aid worker testimony

Gazans “holding on by a thread”, UN aid worker’s harrowing testimony shows

A UN humanitarian freshly back from Gaza described on 25 June 2024 seeing families dig makeshift septic tanks with spoons and shell-shocked toddlers who lost limbs under Israeli bombing, amid continuing obstacles to aid delivery.

After three months spent in the enclave over the course of two deployments, Yasmina Guerda, humanitarian affairs officer with the UN’s aid coordination office OCHA came back with “stories that will haunt [her] for the rest of [her] very privileged life”.

“We really, really should not speak about living conditions” in the Strip because no Gazans have “living” conditions, she told reporters in Geneva. “What they have, if you look closely, is survival conditions. And barely. They’re holding on by a thread.”

Ms. Guerda gave reporters a glimpse of the daily reality of a population which has “lost nearly everything” in the grips of mass forced displacement with “no centimetre” that is safe in Gaza. “You have 10 to 15 minutes to leave your building because it’s going to be bombed. Your kids are sleeping in the room next door. You wake them up, they whine... And you have to make split-second decisions to decide what to pack, what’s essential,” from birth certificates to baby formula, she recounted, stressing that this has been the experience of scores of “people who lived in Gaza city, in Jabalia, in Khan Younis, in Deir el Balah, and now Rafah”.

She also spoke of the horrific aftermath of the bombing of Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza earlier this month as part of an Israeli military operation to release hostages held by Hamas, in which some 270 people were killed and 700 injured according to Gaza’s health authorities. “We were working a couple of kilometers away, and the walls, doors and windows of our building were shaking,” she said. Among the hundreds of people “maimed for life” as a result of the two-hour bombing, she spoke of the children who lost limbs and whom she met the next day at the nearby hospital, “many of whom reminded me of my own two little toddlers,” she added

“They were staring into the void – too shell-shocked to produce a sound or a tear,” she said.

Compounding the horror is the dramatically insufficient aid access in the enclave, where humanitarian delivery remains “a puzzle” amid “ongoing fighting, the public order and safety vacuum” as well as “regular attacks” on aid storage facilities, administrative challenges and hours spent waiting at checkpoints.

Describing the water and sanitation crisis in the Strip, Ms. Guerda spoke of the harrowing experiences of families whom she’s seen “dig makeshift septic tanks with spoons, using toilets and pipes from destroyed buildings so they could have a little bit of privacy and hygiene near their tents”.

The lack of fuel is hampering not only aid delivery, but also protection efforts including humanitarians’ ability to reach unaccompanied children on the move, Ms. Guerda warned. Moreover, mass displacement from Rafah since the beginning of Israel’s offensive there on 7 May meant that people lost access to the malnutrition screening centres which humanitarians had set up there. As a result, there are “thousands of children who were being followed or who were being screened that all of a sudden we lost track of,” she said.

Ms. Guerda insisted that desperate Gazans urgently “need decision-makers to finally make a decisive gesture to put an end to the relentless way in which they are being knocked down after every attempt to get back up”.

“And they need the support of the rest of the world to do that,” she concluded.

From a briefing to journalists in Geneva.