Breaking down in tears, 27-year-old Wesal Azzam explains why her joy at finally having children turned into a nightmare, with the loss of two of her prematurely-born triplets in April this year.
“I’m still grieving for my babies; it’s very hard on me”, she said when I first met her a few weeks later.
Wesal and her husband were overjoyed to find out she was pregnant after trying to conceive for six years. But when Wesal was admitted to hospital, she gave birth to premature triplets, weighing little more than one kilogramme each, just seven months into her pregnancy.
The lack of sufficient incubators in Gaza meant that two of her frail babies, both sons, died just two days after being born. Only baby Jood, a girl, survived, after medics transferred her to a hospital in the city of Nablus on the West Bank. However her parents were both refused permission to travel with her, leaving only Wesal’s elderly mother able to travel with the baby.
“I could not join my baby because of the restrictions on movement”, said Wesal, speaking almost a month after giving birth. "I felt terrible. I lost two babies, but the third I could not even feed her. I didn't see her, I couldn't feel anything towards her...it was like losing the three of them. Since I gave birth I felt nothing, like I never gave birth, like I never delivered. It was a horrible feeling”.
Wesal’s husband , Wajdi Azzam, aged 28, thinks that the Israeli-issued permit was refused due to Wesal’s young age. Under Israeli regulations, patients and companions of patients from Gaza can apply for travel access permits – but there is no guarantee they will be received.
The strict regulations were imposed on Gaza and West Bank residents by the Israeli military authorities eight years ago. The permit system applies to patients who need to travel through checkpoints within the occupied Palestinian territory – that is, between Gaza and the West Bank, East Jerusalem, as well as for travel to Israel and Jordan.
Inside Gaza itself, the blockade has affected public health services. Some of the challenges include chronic shortages of medicines, supplies, electricity, the inability to appropriately maintain equipment in the absence of spare parts and restrictions on movement for referral patients. Many health professionals also cannot travel overseas to gain specialised medical training, because of Israeli restrictions.
Persistent shortages of medical equipment mean there are long waiting lists of patients and increasing numbers of costly referrals of more critically-ill patients to hospitals outside of the Gaza Strip, where access is an additional difficulty.
According to a 2012 UNICEF report, every year, an estimated 1 600 babies die in the first four weeks of their life in Palestine, with more than half dying in their first week. The agency said most of those newborn deaths could be prevented if mothers and newborns’ health was systematically checked.
Gaza’s health facilities were also affected by last year’s Israeli military operation, which resulted in the closure of damaged health facilities during and after the conflict, further straining limited services.
Funding provided by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is helping to address health care needs, as well as food security, water, sanitation and protection for the most vulnerable families in Gaza.
ECHO also supports the Gaza health sector during emergencies, such as evacuation and treatment of the wounded, emergency services in hospitals, and medical supplies, which are provided through the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This emergency response proved crucial during the last Gaza war when the health system was hugely compromised. Emergency medical services in the main hospitals, including ambulance services, presence of surgical teams and provision of drugs and disposables were also provided.
Despite the trauma that Wesal and her husband, Wael, have gone through, there has been some good news. The couple were finally reunited with their young daughter a month after their separation.
“The blockade is purely due to the political situation”, said Wesal. “But it affects the lives of innocent people in all ways, especially in health. It's the main reason things are getting worse and worse in Gaza.”
After 32 days of separation, baby Jood is back in Gaza, and reunited with her mother and father. “It’s an incredible feeling,” says Wesal while hugging Jood. “I thank God that finally I feel I am a mother”.