as already mentioned in my previous post, the winners of this year's annual Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism were announced on Thursday 4 December. The Walkley Awards, which began in 1956, seek to "recognise creative and courageous acts of journalism that seek out the truth and give new insight to an issue".
This year, a number of journalists won awards for their coverage of stories relating to Palestine. I will be posting up over the course of the week, the articles, news stories and documentaries from these award winning journalists.
The awards cover all media, including print (including both newspaper stories and books), television (including news stories and documentaries), radio, photographic, and online media. In 2014, 36 awards were presented for 36 categories, covering various forms of journalism and story telling, from interviews, to scoops, to international reporting, sports journalism, business journalism and investigative journalism and much much more (to view all categories, click here).
Today I am posting up Ruth Pollard's award winning article for her story on the Shifa Hospital Morgue in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.
Pollard won the Walkley Award for the best Short Feature (under 4000 words)
According to the Walkley Awards website:
Ruth Pollard spent a day at the morgue in Shifa Hospital in Gaza, capturing both times of noisy high drama and moments of quiet, desperate grief as frightened families, often covered in blood and dust, located and identified their loved ones. She tells the stories of individuals affected by a conflict that is often reported in terms of the daily toll of dead and injured, and shocking footage of whole town blocks razed to the ground.
Through the stories of these people’s deaths, Pollard explores the horrifying choices families must make in the midst of air strikes and shelling – to stay in their house or risk a journey through the bombardment and, agonisingly, to stick together or split up.
The director of the morgue, Hamdi Khalout, allowed Pollard to shadow him for a day, and became a central part of the story, talking about his fears that one day he will walk into the examination room, open a body bag and find one of his own children.
Judges’ comments: “Ruth Pollard’s feature on the grim day she spent with the director of Shifa morgue is unforgettable. Through her careful observation and vivid description we experience the human side of the Gaza conflict. It is a compelling read, and reflective of the courage Pollard demonstrated in securing access to this war zone morgue and the sensitivity she displayed during her time there. From powerful details to the big picture, this is outstanding, sensitive journalism, beautifully written.”
Please find Pollard's award winning story below, which tells the story of the families who lost their loved ones on Day 25 of Israel's murderous assault on Gaza.
In solidarity, Kim
“If this had happened in Europe, the world would not be silent”
His lifeless body lies on the cold metal tray, bloodied stumps covered in hastily wrapped bandages mark where his legs once were.
Doctors at Shifa Hospital had worked hard to save Ibrahim Suliman, but in the end the injuries he sustained in the Israeli attack on the United Nations girls school in Jabalia on Wednesday proved too great.
Four days before his death, Suliman had made the agonising decision to separate his extended family of 30, dividing them between the four local schools sheltering Palestinians in a desperate bid to keep them alive.
“Let’s not die together,” he told his wife and children when the shelling from the Israeli tanks around their home in Beit Lahiya became too much to bear and they were forced to flee. As his family looked on with mounting grief at his body on the table, it was clear he had made the right call.
The 42-year-old strawberry farmer died alongside two of his cousins, but the rest of his family survived.
“If this had happened in Europe, the world would not be silent,” he says, as the young men of the family carefully lift Ibrahim’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out of the morgue to be transported to his mosque for prayers.
“We buried his legs this morning and we will bury his body this afternoon,” Yassin says.
Such is the ebb and flow of life at Shifa Morgue – now one of the busiest places in Gaza – that no sooner is one body taken than many more will arrive in its place.
When a hospital becomes home
To get to the morgue at Shifa, you must first walk past the chaos of the hospital’s front entrance, where, after a large-scale attack, the arrival of a cavalcade of speeding ambulances and beaten-up private cars carrying gruesomely injured people brings with it a now familiar horror.
Fathers arrive clutching limp, bloodied children in their arms and rush them through the crowd of onlookers as security men clear a pathway to the emergency department.
There seems little hope they could survive such terrible injuries and I fear I will see those children in the morgue later that day.
Further crowding Gaza’s main hospital are the dozens of families who have set up temporary homes along the small walkways between the hospital buildings.
Told to leave their homes via phone calls, text messages and leaflets dropped by the Israel Defence Forces, they make up the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by Israel’s latest military assault against Gaza.
A young girl sits alone on a mattress on the ground, trying to read a book in the dim light, while parents hang makeshift curtains to shield their families from the constant through traffic of hospital staff, grieving families and those who spend their days at Shifa because they say it is the only safe place to go.
Many had fled the horrific violence of the IDF assault on the town of Shujaiya in which it appears whole city blocks have been flattened.
Despite their challenging living conditions on the grounds of Shifa, they know they are the lucky ones.
“They pulled 150 bodies out of the rubble of our homes,” one man says, “many of them ended up in there", he laments, gesturing to the morgue.
Men line the walls outside the morgue, smoking and talking, as a steady flow of ambulances bring in the bodies, broken only by the quieter arrival of trolleys pushed by staff from the surgical and emergency wards – some, like Ibrahim Suliman, are just beyond saving.
The morgue’s main room has two tables. In the momentary midday lull after the furious morning hours where 15 dead passed through, most from the UN school attack, just one green body bag lies on each.
In one is the body of eight-year-old Mohamed Assaf, who staff say was killed in a mortar attack on the Jabalia market earlier that morning.
His father sits weeping in the tiny room next door until the morgue nurse, Mohamed al-Barbary, is free to hand over his body.
The bag is unzipped to reveal Mohamed’s sweet face, his short-sleeved shirt and blue checked shorts stained with blood and the deep head wound and multiple shrapnel injuries that killed him.
As weeping relatives lean in to kiss him, another body arrives. Mohamed Assaf's father scoops up the body bag into his arms, holding it tight against his chest and walks wordlessly down the small staircase to the car waiting outside.
His wife stands at the passenger door sobbing, her hands clutching her face, as he carefully lays their son’s body on the back seat and closes the door.
'I cannot forget them'
Hamdi Kahlout is the director of Shifa Morgue, a jovial, open man whose demeanour stands in stark contrast to the death and destruction that surrounds him.
The forensic pathologist has run the facility for 13 years and says health services across Gaza are operating at “zero capacity” at the moment.
“We have more than 7000 injured, half of them are disabled now, our hospitals have been shelled, ambulances attacked, doctors are running on empty – everyone is exhausted and drained.”
Trained in Croatia, 50-year-old Kahlout has worked in conflict zones in Bosnia and Iraq and lived through two Gaza wars – in Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 and in Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012 – but these last three weeks have worn him down.
“It is the first time I have felt that we cannot bear much more of this,” he says. “I am still trying to get the images of the children who died in the strike on Shati Camp out of my mind – one of them was just one month old. I cannot forget them.”
There is no time for a full autopsy in a morgue that can see up to 90 bodies a day, all processed by a small team of exhausted workers.
An external examination is performed, X-rays, tissue, blood and toxicology samples are taken, and the injuries are meticulously photographed by morgue staff to both help determine cause of death and the types of weapons Israeli soldiers are using.
As we talk in Kahlout’s office, there are sounds of a crowd growing in the next room as the family of 25-year-old Mohamed al-Masry come to collect his body.
The dead man’s face is wet with the tears of his loved ones as they cry and bend to kiss him one last time.
A final year geography student at al-Azhar University, Mohamed had hoped to become a teacher when he graduated, his cousin, also Mohamed, said.
He was injured in the Israeli military onslaught on the small neighbourhood of Beit Hanoun on January 25, and died from his wounds on Wednesday.
As the family leaves with Mohamed, three more bodies arrive – one so badly burned and mutilated by the force of an explosion that it defies description. It is still there when I leave four hours later, the only body the morgue has been unable to identify that day.
Recognising the dead
There are seven large silver cold storage units in which the bodies are kept at Shifa Morgue.
Some days – like Wednesday when a UN school housing 3300 displaced people is hit by Israeli-fired artillery – the bodies, particularly if they are children, are piled two or three to a tray.
The families come in waves to find them, sometimes pushing their way through the morgue’s front door and rushing to the fridges, opening one door after another until they find something about a body that is recognisable – a necklace, a T-shirt, the curls of their hair.
They stand and stare for a while, the younger ones stretching onto their tiptoes to peer into the drawer and see the person they cannot believe is gone.
Then another family arrives and the process begins again.Amongst it all, the staff, some paid and some, like nurse Mohamed al-Barbary who has volunteered during every Gaza war, are there providing emotional support for the families, carefully cataloguing the bodies and finding a rare moment for their own quiet grief.
For Kahlout, there is no question of taking the heaviness of his work home to his wife and five precious children.
“I will never tell them what I see every day,” he says. “In 20 years on the job I’ve never spoken about it. Every morning I go to work and I never know if I will see them alive again,” he says.
“They feel the same way about me – every night when I get home it is like a party when they see me … and if they are asleep I wake them up to play with them."
It is not easy working with dead bodies every day, he says, “but when I change my clothes and have a shower at the end of each day, I also change my feelings".
Outside another crowd is building and they are not just grieving, they are angry.
Banging on the metal door, members of the Bakr family – who have already known such grief – were there to collect another of their dead. They had already buried Mohammed Bakr, 9; Ahed Bakr, 10; Zakaria Bakr, 10; and Mohammed Bakr, 11, all killed on July 16 when Israeli gunboats fired on the beach as the four boys tried to run for safety.
This time they are here for Ahmed Bakr, 20, who was badly injured nine days ago and was one of the few patients evacuated to the French Hospital in East Jerusalem for treatment. He died on Tuesday and his body was bought back to Gaza on Wednesday.
“They are not coping,” Kahlout says. “They have lost so much and they are so upset, it is difficult to know what to do.”
The limits of capacity
Many other cases came into the morgue that day.
There were at least five bodies waiting to be collected in the late afternoon before the Israeli attack on the outskirts of Shujaiya in which 17 people died and 160 were wounded.
Throwing already overstretched hospitals further into crisis, badly wounded people, many missing limbs, began arriving at hospitals across the Gaza Strip.
At Shifa, surgeons were operating two-to-a-room on patients, while others were performing surgery on patients lying on the floor in corridors.
Storage rooms – mostly empty of much needed medicines and equipment – have been commandeered as operating theatres, to cope with the demand.
Families say many of the injured are dying because there is simply not enough medical staff, or the capacity in hospitals, to treat people in time.
Already the toll in this 25-day war has surpassed Cast Lead, in which 1400 people were killed in Gaza, according to human rights groups.
In Pillar of Defence, 133 Palestinians were killed.More than 1430 Palestinians have been killed and 8400 wounded since Israel began this operations on July 8.
It is estimated that 80 per cent of those are civilians, including at least 343 children and 186 women, the Gaza-based al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights says.
Despite the high civilian toll and the international condemnation over its attack on the UN school, Israel shows no signs of easing its operations, in which 56 of its own soldiers have died.
Three civilians have also been killed, with more than 2800 rockets fired into Israel the last three weeks, most either falling in empty fields or being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system.
After Thursday’s cabinet meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the IDF was continuing to act with full force across the Gaza Strip.
“As of now, we have neutralised dozens of terrorist tunnels and we are determined to complete this mission, with or without a ceasefire.”
For the people of Gaza, trapped between the rockets of Hamas and the overwhelming show of force from the Israeli military, it is difficult to see an end in sight, let alone a hint of when any recovery could begin.
And in the meantime, the trauma that hangs over Gaza like a thick cloud is only worsening.
For Hamdi Kahlout, the speed with which his children have adapted to a life lived under war is alarming.
His youngest child, Mohamed, is just 2½ years old, and along with “mama” and “papa” he uses the very grown-up word “qasef”, which means air strike.
“No child should ever know that word,” Kahlout says, as he scrolls though the elaborately decorated photographs of his children that he keeps on his phone. “They are beautiful kids, yes, and I am happy they are still alive."