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Long waiting list for Gaza's new amputees

Sept. 28, 2009 7:47 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 30, 2009 9:24 A.M.)
Gaza – Ma'an – "My life has changed," 23-year-old university student Reyad Rabi told Ma'an in Gaza last week. "They promised to find a prosthetic for me and indeed they were serious; I'm living my life normally."

"The second day of the war, I was standing with my father near our house when a missile fired from a jet hit us," he continued. "Me, my father, and my brother were all hurt. I lost my left leg and the right one was damaged severely."

"It changed me," he added, recounting months without hope, of despair and fatigue, obsessed with what the future would hold. "I treated my wife differently, and my family, too. I watched them walking everywhere, while I was confined to a house - 24 hours a day."

Yet today Reyad can carry his boy, born after the war, and leave his home without anyone's help. Although he's still searching for a job that could accommodate his new reality as an amputee, Reyad said he considers himself lucky.

Fresh after Israel's assault on Gaza last winter, and due to its ongoing blockade of the coastal strip, finding prosthetic limbs is for the first time more difficult than affording them, which was once patients' main concern. And they're only available in one place.

Dr Hazem Ash-Shawwa is the director of Gaza City's Artificial Limb and Polio Center, which operates thanks to the generosity of local civil society and nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. He said his limited staff does its best for patients seeking to replace limbs lost during the latest assault, but the wait has never been longer.

Most frustrating, the specialist insisted, is that his center could construct its own prosthetics were it not for the ban on most of the necessary raw materials. While European intervention has occasionally forced Israel to budge, "under normal circumstances" his center was already providing services to some 5,000 injured in the second intifada and other accidents - all before the blockade that began in 2007.

And that was months before the air assault and invasion shocked the world late last December. During the three-week offensive, Ash-Shawwa says, his list of patients increased by the hundreds.

Sadly, according to the doctor, is that it is Egypt's permanent closure of the Rafah crossing that prevents most Gazans from receiving treatment there, since Israel's borders are all but off-limits. He said his center receives offers of aid from abroad for everything it would need to help the amputees, but none of it matters when Cairo opens Rafah sporadically, at best.

Nevertheless some relatively fortunate Palestinians were able to temporarily escape to Egypt during the assault. Umm Murtajy lost a leg, in addition to her journalist son, while checking on neighbors after her family heard a loud blast from next door.

"A warning missile arrived on their [the neighbors'] roof," she explained. "When I got up to see what happened, another struck ours, killing my son, severing my right leg, and wounding my left one."

Although Murtajy was transported to Egypt for medical treatment during the actual assault, doctors were unable to immediately heal her stump well to fit a prosthesis, and sent her home to make room for more patients. "So I came back to Gaza, and I'm waiting my turn."
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