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A chief surgeon with the ICRC describes 11 days in Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A British surgeon with the International Committee of the Red Cross recently crossed into Gaza. NPR's Aya Batrawy spoke with him about what he has seen as hospitals overflow with people injured by Israeli airstrikes. And a warning - this report includes graphic descriptions of their injuries.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Dr. Tom Potokar tells me he's seen a catastrophic situation since entering Gaza on October 27 the scale of which he's never seen before.

TOM POTOKAR: I've been to Gaza many, many times over the years. I've never seen a situation even remotely as bad as it is currently.

BATRAWY: The British plastic, reconstructive and burns surgeon leads what the International Committee of the Red Cross says is a war surgery team in Gaza. A lot of the cases he's handling have been women and children with very complex injuries and burns.

POTOKAR: We're seeing just poly-trauma - so multiple injuries in the same patient - you know, legs, arms, chest, abdomen, head - all complicated and a lot of them by burns on top of this - just an unmanageable number of patients.

BATRAWY: An unmanageable number of patients. I asked him what that looks like.

POTOKAR: I think the words to best describe it would just be overwhelming, to be honest.

BATRAWY: The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 10,300 Palestinians have died from the war since October 7, and 26,000 people have been wounded. It says among them are more than 4,200 children killed, nearly all from Israeli airstrikes and bombardment. Israel says it's targeting Hamas, which launched an attack on southern Israel that killed 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials. Some 240 people were taken hostage, and Israeli leaders say troops are aiming to rescue those hostages and eliminate Hamas. In Gaza, the death toll keeps climbing, with strikes on ambulances, hospitals, bread lines, U.N.-run shelters and thousands of apartment buildings. Israel acknowledges many of these attacks and blames Hamas fighters for using tunnels under civilian infrastructure. The heads of 18 U.N. agencies say these places must be protected and have reiterated calls for a cease-fire. Palestinians say the majority of victims are civilians, and Potokar takes a minute to describe how complex even one of these cases is.

POTOKAR: I have a patient now who's on the table that I need to go and operate now. You know, he lost 20 members of his family. He's the only one left. He has friends here. He doesn't have any family here. He's a young man. He has 40% burns, of which half of them are deep burns. He has massive shrapnel wounds to the chest, to the foot, to the buttock. He's septic, so he's already got infection. You know, he's in a critical condition. Even giving him an anesthetic is extremely dangerous because of his general overall condition. But if we don't operate to clean up some of these wounds, then, you know, the infection doesn't get controlled. You know, that's a very typical case.

BATRAWY: He also operated on a child who was under the rubble for two days. The health ministry in Gaza says nearly 1,400 children are missing under the rubble.

POTOKAR: A case of a child - again, lost all his family, pulled out of the rubble after two days with extensive burn injuries. He's slowly getting a little bit better.

BATRAWY: In another case, he had to tell the parents of a child with severe burns that their son wouldn't survive.

POTOKAR: And unfortunately, he died a couple of days later. You know, this is the reality of what's happening.

BATRAWY: And for many who may survive this war, their long-term prognosis isn't good either, he says.

POTOKAR: There's a lot of patients that will suffer significant, long-term disability due to a combination of, you know, amputations, significant soft tissue injuries, delayed burn contractures.

BATRAWY: Only 17 out of Gaza's 35 hospitals are still operational. The Palestinian health Ministry says the rest have been damaged by Israeli bombs or have run out of fuel for generators. Potokar has been working at Gaza's European hospital in Khan Yunis, one of the few still operational in southern Gaza that can receive some of the limited aid trickling in from Egypt. I asked the surgeon how he and his team are keeping safe even as the ICRC communicates with Israel and has helped in the release of four Israeli hostages from Gaza.

POTOKAR: I'm not sure we are. I mean, you know, every single night, there's bombardments. There was several explosions just outside the hospital last night before we left and again this morning.

BATRAWY: Despite this, the doctor says he's got no immediate plans to leave Gaza.

POTOKAR: Not at the moment, no, because there's no one else getting in at the moment. And, you know, the needs are too great. Yeah. I need to go. OK. Yeah. Bye.

BATRAWY: The young man with no surviving family and burns across nearly half his body was on the operating table, waiting for Dr. Potokar. Aya Batrawy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.