GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – When an Israeli airstrike hit the Gaza home for the handicapped where she was staying, Sally Saqr was left shattered. Her pelvis, legs and an arm were broken, her skull fractured, much of her body burned. In the hospital, doctors couldn’t put her limbs in casts because multiple other wounds had to heal first.
But after a week, her mother had to take the 20-year-old woman home because Gaza’s main Shifa Hospital needed the bed, as more broken bodies flowed in every day from the bombardment.
Saqr has been severely handicapped since birth because of complications during delivery. She can’t speak, her body never developed beyond the size of a child. She was able to walk – with difficulty – but after her wounds in the July 12 airstrike, she couldn’t walk at all, and had to be put in diapers because she couldn’t reach the bathroom.
Her mother has been overwhelmed. Saqr is in excruciating pain and screams in her sleep.
“My burden is heavy,” said her 36-year-old mother, Soumah Abu Shanab. “Now I must feed her, bathe her and change her diapers.” She spoke as three visiting nurses changed Saqr’s dressings. Saqr clutched a box of medicine. Just holding it distracts her from the pain.
Much of the world’s attention has focused on the Palestinian death toll in the Gaza war, with more than 1,900 killed, including at least 450 children, Palestinian health officials say. But a longer-term trauma may be the large number of wounded – more than 9,800, mostly civilians, including at least 3,000 children, officials say.
While the dead are buried, the wounded are a living reminder of the ravages of war. Their numbers have overwhelmed Gaza’s medical system, already dilapidated after seven years of an economic blockade on the tiny territory by Israel and Egypt, as well as the diversion of resources to build up Hamas’ military capabilities.
Gaza’s 25 hospitals have a total of 2,047 beds, or 1.3 beds per 1,000 people, among the lowest ratios in the world, according to United Nations figures. Nearly a third of the hospitals have been damaged in the fighting, according to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that looks after Palestinian refugees.
The thousands discharged – many with severe wounds patched together temporarily – are then left to the care of already devastated families who are grieving for dead loved ones and struggling to get by in the devastation.
Some of the wounded return not to home, but to U.N.-run schools packed with displaced people. Some crowd into the houses of extended families along with other relatives with nowhere else to go. Most homes are without electricity or running water.
About 250,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents have been displaced, while approximately 65,000 lost their homes in the fighting, according to U.N. figures.
In the crowded households, the wounded become a center of attention as relatives try to provide small comforts. Most are immobile, or can move very little. Families often put the wounded’s mattress or bed by a window to get air in stifling rooms amid the power outages.
Though nurses can sometimes visit homes, many wounded have to make daily trips back to the hospital for treatment, risking complications from the exertions of the trip and the summer heat. “Some of them don’t have the basic needs of life at home,” said Dr. Sobhi Skaek, head of surgery at Shifa Hospital. “We have a serious problem.”
The large number of wounded speaks to the ferocity of Israeli shelling – nearly 5,000 strikes since the war began July 8, according to the Israeli military.
Israel says that its campaign aims to stop rocket fire into Israel by Gaza militants and that it targets sites of rocket launchers and militants’ command and control, which were tightly interwoven with the population. Israel says that it does its utmost to avoid hitting civilians, warning them to leave areas about to be attacked.
But repeatedly during the war, entire families have been devastated by strikes, killing multiple members at once and leaving others torn by shrapnel, burned or crushed in rubble.