PH nurses recount last days in besieged Gaza
Darwin dela Cruz, a 39-year-old nurse for the medical outreach organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), was in Afghanistan when the Islamic fundamentalist group Taliban took over that country in August 2021. He thought it was the most dangerous place he had ever been sent to.
But that was until he was transferred to the Gaza Strip, where last month he and other aid workers—and the rest of the local strife-weary population—were caught in the reignited conflict between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas.
At a forum held at the University of the Philippines Manila on Thursday, Dela Cruz and fellow MSF member Regidor Esguerra, 46, recounted how they evaded danger in the early phase of the Israeli siege of Gaza before making it through the narrow window for evacuees and finally returning to the country.
The forum, titled “Hospitals Under Siege: Understanding the Israel-Palestine War,” also served as a call for the opening of humanitarian corridors to Gaza for urgently needed aid.
Dela Cruz arrived for his new assignment in the Palestinian enclave in December 2021. Before the renewed hostilities erupted on Oct. 7, he witnessed on at least two occasions how the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would first send out fliers to the local population to warn about the buildings being targeted for serving as Hamas positions, calling on Gazans to move away from the structures.
The warnings would be issued about 10 minutes or up to an hour before the bombing.
The two nurses were at their guesthouse in northern Gaza when they had their closest encounter with Israeli reprisal on Oct. 9, two days after the Hamas cross-border attacks that provoked the siege.
“[A] mosque was bombed less than a hundred meters away from our guesthouse. You can feel the tremors, you can feel the shockwave, the shattering of all of our windows,” Esguerra said.
Fleeing to the south
Before the day was over, they received a notice from Israel that their area would again be bombed within 24 hours and that they needed to evacuate. Esguerra, who arrived in Gaza only on Oct. 2, was tasked to be the evacuation leader of a group of 25 MSF medical personnel.
They first transferred to the building used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). When they arrived, there were only about 400 Palestinians with them who were also seeking refuge, but within five hours their number swelled to about 10,000.
It was the only building in Palestine that had an underground bunker, according to Dela Cruz.
The MSF team stayed there for four days until Israel issued another warning for Gaza City’s 1.1 million inhabitants to flee southward within 24 hours.
When they left the UNDP building it was still sheltering Palestinians by the thousands, they said.
Upon reaching southern Gaza, Dela Cruz, Esguerra and the rest of the team had to relocate three more times, fearing that the bombardment could still reach them.
Their final stop was the parking lot of another UN building near the Rafah crossing, the border area they needed to cross to reach safer ground in Egypt. Shortages
They stayed there for two weeks, bereft of any real comfort and facing shortages of food, water and power supply. It reached a point where they had to cook whatever meager meal they could share on a makeshift stove using firewood.
“Since expatriates were advised not to go out for our own safety, we had to ask our drivers to go to the market and buy us food. We would’ve died either from starvation or the bombing if it wasn’t for them,” Dela Cruz said in gratitude to the Palestinians who helped them survive.
Finally, on Nov. 1, their names were included on the list of foreign nationals allowed to leave Gaza.
At Thursday’s forum, to give an idea of the staggering death toll and agony brought about by the conflict, they said MSF supplies originally meant to last for nine months in Gaza were all used up in less than two weeks.
While awaiting their next MSF assignment, Esguerra intends to stay in his hometown General Santos City while Dela Cruz will be in Pangasinan province.