KARACHI: Dr Hafeezur Rehman is among the 2,800 Pakistani doctors who have responded to volunteer in Gaza on the call of Al Khidmat Foundation (AKF), a non-governmental organisation.

When the 42-year-old orthopedic surgeon from Lahore told his father about his decision, the only thing the latter said was “give my salams to the people of Palestine”.

Several Pakistani NGOs have agreed that the best way to provide humanitarian support to the Palestinians would be for all to work together and not in silos.

“We decided that we should pool our resources, whether these be in the form of volunteers, relief goods, or medicines and equipment, all should be sent through the NDMA, as per policy and protocols of the government of Pakistan whenever needed,” said Dr Amjad Saqib, heading Akhuwat.

Dr Rehman while talking to Dawn said, “When I hear of doctors working around the clock, who don’t even have time to mourn the death of their own family members, I feel I cannot sit around and do nothing.”

The doctor has also given his name to Medicine Sans Frontiers and the International Committee of the Red Cross whichever organisation can get him to Gaza faster.

Dr Rehman earlier went to Turkiye, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country as well as some regions of Syria.

He agreed that working in a natural disaster is different from working in a war zone.

“But I am trained to work in emergency situations; I see patients coming with broken limbs every day,” he explained.

Over 200 healthcare workers have been killed in Gaza since the start of conflict, according the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

The only thing his wife told him when he told her about his decision to serve in Gaza was to “keep safe”, said the father of a six-month-old daughter.

Tragic environment

Forty-seven-year-old anesthetist Dr Anjum Naseem and his wife 41-year-old Dr Huma Zafar, a pediatric oncologist, have also given their names to AKF as volunteers.

“It’s the least we can do,” said Dr Zafar, who has never worked in a war zone or in humanitarian crisis-like situation.

Would she be able to work in such tragic environment?

“I worked non-stop during Covid-19 and I saw people dying; and I work in extremely tragic circumstances, in palliative care and see children dying of cancer. I relive a parent’s trauma every day…I will be able to handle Gaza too,” she said resolutely.

She, however, said that AKF, preferred male doctors to their female counterpart.

“They feel we may be an extra burden and that we should remain in safe and protected zone, but they should not think of women as a liability, we are a resource they need to tap on,” said Dr Zafar. Some 50 per cent of the doctors who have signed up with AKF are women.

After the recent passing away of Dr Naseem’s father, the doctor duo, however, have made a slight change of plan with one of them staying with their three sons and the mother and alternating.

“I think I will go first,” he said.

He had earlier worked during Pakistan’s earthquake of 2005, then in the 2022 floods and regularly volunteers his services for cleft lip and palate surgery across Pakistan.

Egypt visa awaited

So far, Egypt has not given visas to Pakistan or even to enter Gaza through Rafah border, explained Dr Zahid Latif, who is Al Khidmat Health Foundation’s head.

But it is not just human resources, in the form of medics, that are needed in Gaza.

“We need the equipment, including machines, drugs, operation theatre lights, oxygen etc., too and a place to work,” said Dr Naseem.

“If there is none available in Gaza,” he said one solution would be to allow doctors to set up a hospital-like facility at the Rafah border, the 12km-long border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and allow the injured Palestinians to get treated there.

“This is not the time to worry about the influx of refugees but to provide the Palestinians help on humanitarian grounds at least,” he said, adding, “I am very disappointed with the inertia I see in Muslim countries.”

The frustration was felt by Dr Rehman: “I, as trauma surgeon, can truly feel the exhaustion of the trauma surgeons working under tremendous pressure,” he said. “Please get us heard by the authorities,” he said.

It has been a month since he and others had registered with the AKF but there has been no breakthrough.

“We are prepared to set up a 50-bed field hospital anywhere, even at the Rafah border,” said Dr Latif, but there seems no way to get permission.

He said the foundation was trying all channels, collaborating with international humanitarian organisations but there seems an impasse. At the same time, he said, for AKF the safety of the doctors who want to go to Gaza is also paramount. There are confirmed media reports that the director of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza Strip has been arrested by the Israeli army.

It may be recalled that caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani while speaking in Senate on Friday disclosed that Pakistan is in contact with the Egyptian and Jordanian authorities to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians.

“Unfortunately, Israel is currently hindering the delivery of aid to Gaza,” he was quoted by APP as having informed the senators.

Mr Jilani said Pakistan had extended offers of medical assistance, including airlifting the injured to Pakistan and establishing a hospital in Gaza, but Israel had not granted permission for these initiatives.

The minister said, “As per reports, around 15,000 people have been killed, and 40,000 injured by Israeli forces.”

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2023

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