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“What I Saw Wasn’t War — It Was Annihilation,” Says U.S. Doctor Who Volunteered in Gaza Hospital

StoryFebruary 20, 2024
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We speak with an American doctor just back from Gaza about the “unimaginable scale” of its humanitarian crisis. Irfan Galaria, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, recently wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times describing Israel’s assault on Gaza’s civilians as “annihilation.” Dr. Galaria, who has worked in conflict zones around the world, says he and his team witnessed “a collateral humanitarian crisis of an unimaginable scale,” involving the “deliberate attempt” to both target civilians with military assault and to deprive them of aid. “I thought I was going to be prepared, but I was not prepared for what I saw,” he says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show on Gaza, where the death toll since October 7th is nearing 30,000. Amidst worsening hunger, UNICEF is warning that the war-torn territory is, quote, “poised to witness an explosion in preventable child deaths which would compound the already unbearable level of child deaths,” unquote. On Monday, Palestinians rushed to get sacks of flour from a U.N. distribution center in Gaza City. This is a displaced Palestinian named Abdullah Sawaf.

ABDULLAH SAWAF: [translated] Because we want to eat, we are dying of hunger. Why would someone put themself at risk of dying by coming here? It is in order to feed the children. We are dying of hunger, and there is no food or drink left in Gaza. There is a famine.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Israeli forces reportedly opened fire again at crowds waiting for humanitarian aid.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Dr. Irfan Galaria, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon just back from volunteering in Gaza with the humanitarian aid group MedGlobal, his L.A. Times op-ed headlined “I’m an American doctor who went to Gaza. What I saw wasn’t war — it was annihilation.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Doctor. Explain what you saw, why you call it an “annihilation.”

DR. IRFAN GALARIA: Certainly. Amy and Juan, thank you so much for having me on the show, and congratulations on 28 years.

Look, I understand in war you’re going to have collateral civilian casualties. You’ll have displaced citizens. But what I saw when I was in Gaza, and what my team saw, was vastly different. What we saw was a collateral humanitarian crisis of an unimaginable scale, over 1 million civilians struggling to survive, struggling to find shelter, struggling to find food, struggling to find drinking water.

And what we also saw, what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to strangulate these civilians. We saw, while we were driving to Rafah, miles of trucks lining the road on the Egyptian side waiting to enter. You know, Amy and Juan, what’s a very telling statistic is, before this war began, almost 500 to 600 aid trucks would cross through the borders daily. It shows you how dependent this country was on aid even before the war. But now, after the war, or during the war, the need is even greater, and less than a hundred trucks are allowed to enter.

What I also saw and what our team also saw was a deliberate attempt to incapacitate the healthcare system. The healthcare system in Gaza has collapsed. Hospitals have been targeted. They no longer have the physical capacity or space to care for their patients. Physicians are being killed. Healthcare workers are being killed. They’re being targeted. They’re being imprisoned. There’s no medical aid or medical equipment that’s coming through. You know, we operated under unsterile conditions, and we had outcomes in procedures that we had to perform in Gaza, unfortunately, because we didn’t have access to basic medical equipment and aid.

And the last thing I would like to add is, while they’re facing this humanitarian crisis, they’re facing a relentless attack, bombs and missiles regularly. And to me and to my team, there did not seem to be a distinction between any military, soldier, terrorist targets versus civilian targets. The stories we heard over and over again were the same. We took care of patients and civilians that were sleeping in their homes. I’ll give you one example. There was a young child. He was 14 years old, a boy, who I had taken care of. He sustained what’s called an open fracture on his left leg. He lost so much flesh that his bone that was fractured was exposed. His story was that he lived in Khan Younis, and they went to a local school trying to seek shelter with other families. That school was bombed. And his entire family was killed, and he was orphaned. So, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to target civilians. And there doesn’t seem to be a very reasonable attempt to protect them in this conflict.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Galaria, you wrote in your L.A. Times piece, “I couldn’t help thinking that the lucky ones died instantaneously, either by the force of the explosion or being buried in the rubble. The survivors faced hours of surgery and multiple trips to the operating room.” Could you talk some more about the conditions under which you performed surgery while you were there?

DR. IRFAN GALARIA: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ve been in war zones. I’ve operated in small hospitals in Africa. I was not — I thought I was going to be prepared, but I was not prepared for what I saw here, in terms of not only the equipment and materials I had had access to, but the patients that I was taking care of. We lacked, as surgeons in the hospital then, basic equipment and basic materials, such as sterile drapes, basic surgical equipment. There are a lot of procedures that we couldn’t perform because we didn’t have access to that equipment. And as a result, patients suffered, because we couldn’t provide them with procedures or services that we could have provided for them here in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Irfan Galaria, we have to end the conversation here, but we’re going to continue online at People can hear and watch our web exclusive. Dr. Galaria is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. He wrote an L.A. Times op-ed headlined “I’m an American doctor who went to Gaza. What I saw wasn’t war — it was annihilation.”

That does it for our show. A happy belated birthday to Neil Shibata. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Hana Elias. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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