Japanese Director of U.N. Agency Gets First-Hand Look at Horrors, Broken Spirits of Gaza

Courtesy of Akihiro Seita
A tent village of refugees is seen on the coast in Rafah in southern Gaza on Sunday.

JERUSALEM — The spirits of the Palestinians in Gaza is past the breaking point, says Akihiro Seita, the director of the health division of a U.N. agency who has seen the horrors of the war between Israel and Hamas militant group first-hand in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

“Not only have all of the buildings been destroyed, but also the spirits of the people and all hope is lost,” Seita said in a telephone interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sunday.

Seita, who is based in Jordan, entered Rafah at the southernmost tip of the Gaza Strip via Egypt on March 20, his first time there since the fighting between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas began in October last year.

Seita, the director of the Health Department of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), had visited Gaza prior to the war. “It’s a very different scene from the Gaza that I saw before,” he said of the current situation.

Open spaces throughout the area are filled with tents for the displaced, and multitudes plod down the streets on foot, he said.

Seita is being accompanied by a number of staff members brought to provide support for health centers and shelters run by UNRWA. “All of the residents in Gaza are exhausted,” he said. “They need a ceasefire and to get some peaceful sleep.”

Seita plans to remain in the area and, while continue assessing the situation until early April, explore ways in which the organization can provide relief.

“We are continuing our assistance efforts, but the aid we send is just a drop in the bucket,” Seita said.

Noting the humanitarian crisis in which the spread of infectious diseases is fueled by shortages of food and medicine, he appealed to the international community to bring about a ceasefire and begin much-needed reconstruction of the area.

Living day to day

Seita made the rounds of UNRWA-run health centers and displacement camps, where he talked with staff and gained a better understanding of the direness of the situation.

An old acquaintance, a health center worker in his 40s who had evacuated to Rafah from Gaza City in the north, told him that everything was destroyed, even his soul. He added that he could only live for the moment, not knowing what tomorrow will hold.

Seita said he heard similar sentiments of being “broken inside” from many residents. Nearly six months after the start of the fighting, he has come to realize that “everyone is exhausted, their spirits broken, bewildered, and living day to day.”

The Israeli Army currently stands poised to launch a full-scale invasion of Rafah, where about 1.5 million Gazans have taken refuge.

There are still buildings standing in Rafah, compared with northern Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, but the Israeli airstrikes continue. No safe place remains in Gaza.

One shelter to another

Seita related the sorrowful tale of a 29-year-old doctor at a health center in Rafah who had fled there from Gaza City last October with her husband, who is a dentist, and their children, ages 1 and 3.

The family has changed shelters 12 times, and at one time slept on the street for three days. Now they are camped in a corner of the health center.

Her husband was planning to open his own dental clinic in Gaza City, and borrowed money to buy expensive equipment. But fate dealt him a devastating blow – one day before the clinic was to open on Oct. 8, the war broke out. Both the clinic and their home were destroyed.

Seita said the doctor broke out in tears recalling the tragedy, and was in anguish over what the future had in store for her family.

Water rations

About 40,000 people have taken refuge in the classrooms and schoolyards of UNRWA-run schools.

They rely on aid packages for food, and drinking water rationing provides only 500 milliliters per person per day. There are only 16 toilets, one for every 2,500 people.

Contaminated water has caused an outbreak of hepatitis A, and some children are showing symptoms of jaundice. About one in 10 children are suffering from malnourishment.

The UNRWA’s approach to health is to focus on efforts to prevent the spread of diseases, supplement nutrition, and provide mental health care.

“No human being should ever be oppressed like this”, Seita said. “It is the responsibility of the international community to rebuild a society in which Gazans can live safe and secure.”

Courtesy of Akihiro Seita

Akihiro Seita

Akihiro Seita, 63, is a medical doctor who specializes in infectious diseases. He previously worked for the World Health Organization for about 15 years, addressing tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. He took up his current position in 2010.