Israel left me with half a body

Founded in 1976, Gaza’s Artificial Limbs and Polio Center has seen a dramatic increase in its workload, fitting prosthetic limbs for many people injured during three major Israeli offensives since 2008.

Emad Shaat

Manar al-Shenbari has vague recollections of what happened on 24 July 2014. She was taking shelter at the UNRWA Beit Hanoun Elementary School in the Gaza Strip when the Israeli military shelled it. Manar’s mother, sister and two brothers were among the 11 people killed at the UN-funded school.

“There were bodies on the ground, people screaming,” she said. “And lots of blood on my body. Those are the only things I can remember from that day. It was like a nightmare. I lost consciousness and woke up in hospital.”

Manar – now aged 17 – lost both of her legs in the attack and required emergency treatment. She was transferred to Jordan for surgery. When she returned to Gaza, she found everyday life extremely difficult.

“Getting out of bed in the morning, taking a shower, going to school, all these things involved endless suffering,” she said.

Manar spent three months at Gaza’s Artificial Limbs and Polio Center after her return from Jordan.

She had prosthetic legs fitted and learned to walk again, using crutches. With a great deal of effort, she was able to perform simple tasks once more, without being entirely dependent on the surviving members of her family.

“For sure, it’s not easy,” she said. “But at least I don’t need my sister’s help in everything I do.”

Manar hopes to study journalism after she leaves high school.

“Every night before I go to sleep, I take off my artificial limbs, look at my half body and then close my eyes,” she said. “I imagine being the first journalist in Gaza with only half a body. I want to fight Israel by reporting what is happening. That is how I imagine taking revenge for what the Israelis did to my body and to my family.”

Manar is not yet comfortable in many situations. “People stare at me a lot,” she said. “They take pity on me. It doesn’t feel good, so I prefer not to go out a lot.”

Increased workload

Yet she has made considerable progress in the past two years.

“At the beginning, I refused to talk to the doctor and other staff members of the center,” she said. “I kept thinking about what happened to me and my family. It was a very tough period. Step by step, I started accepting the new reality of my life and I decided to cope.”

Founded in 1976, the Artificial Limbs and Polio Center has experienced a dramatic increase in its workload in recent years. It has fitted prosthetic limbs for many of the people who were badly injured during the three major offensives that Israel has undertaken against Gaza since December 2008.

Towards the end of 2014 – the year when Israel’s latest major offensive occurred – approximately 950 amputees were being treated at the center.

The treatment is provided through funding from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, and charities such as Islamic Relief Worldwide and Handicap International.

The prosthetic limbs that the center fits are all made specially for each patient with material imported from Germany by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Like many health services in Gaza, the center is short of funding. According to management, it lacks many of the materials that it requires.

Overcoming depression

As well as fitting prosthetic limbs, the center provides counseling to people who have lost body parts.

Khaled Shtewi, a psychologist at the center, noted that learning to cope is a slow process.

“What hurts patients most is the long time of waiting before prosthetic limbs are fitted,” he said. “During that time, they can feel like they are worthless in society.”

Muhammad Zeidan – from Jabaliya refugee camp north of Gaza City – now works as a carpenter. He had to have his leg amputated after being injured in Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Zeidan suffered from depression following the attack. But he managed to recover. He used a wheelchair initially, but later learned how to walk with a prosthetic leg.

Before losing his leg, he had worked cutting panels of wood for sofas and cupboards. Undergoing further training after the attack, he has returned to carpentry.

Part of his training was provided by the Islamic University of Gaza, but he also taught himself some techniques by watching videos on YouTube.

“I had to work,” said Zeidan, who has five children to feed and clothe. He also supports his parents financially.

Zeidan works from home, assisted by siblings and cousins.

Outside work, he relies heavily on his prosthetic leg to get around. But he removes it when he is in his workshop. This means that he has to hop around on his foot.

“I only take my limb off when I work and sleep,” he said. “It hinders me when I work; that’s why I take it off.”

Amany al-Haddad, head of physiotherapy at the Artificial Limbs Center, said that Zeidan was “full of life” despite his ordeal. “He adapted quickly and well to his new limb,” al-Haddad added.

“That’s why we weren’t surprised to hear that he had built up his carpentry workshop.”

Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.