Reference : V-P-IL-E-03240
Date : 03/04/2019
Caption : Gaza, Rafah. Portrait of a twenty-year-old young man who lost his leg during the Great Return March protests along the border fence between Israel and Gaza on March 31, 2018. In April, he joined an amputee football team in Gaza.
Photographer : SYNENKO, Alyona
Confidentiality level : public
Publication restrictions : publication without restrictions
Copyright : ICRC
Description : ICRC web site, article of 05.2019: Nothing ever changes: a young amputee in Gaza is striving to get his life back on track

“If you love me, don’t go there,” Haithem’s father told him on March 31, 2018, the second day of Gaza border demonstrations that would last for more than a year, leaving thousands injured and over 200 dead. The nineteen-year-old promised his parents to stay away from the fence. But while he was sipping afternoon coffee with his friends, curiosity took over and he decided that nothing bad could happen if he went to take a look at the big event everyone in Gaza was talking about. When he arrived at the site, people were gathering, and the atmosphere was becoming electric. He stood aside and lit a cigarette.
Starting smoking was the first adult decision Haithem took at the age of thirteen. At about the same time he left school and got his first job selling vegetables. Spending a shekel of his father’s money on cigarettes was something unconceivable to him. Haithem’s father lost his job after the factory where he had worked for 14 years shut down as exports sharply declined. Movement restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt took a heavy toll on Gaza economy and it was slowly coming to a standstill. Haithem grew up watching his father struggle to support the family of 10, working as a taxi driver. He felt it was his responsibility to step in and help.
“He was such a bright student,” Haithem’s mother lamented, “at school, everybody loved him.” Like many of his peers who came of age after Gaza was cut off from the rest of the world, the teen did not believe in the benefits of formal education. At 68% graduates’ unemployment, here is among the highest in the world. “They study for their university degrees then hang their diplomas on the wall and do the same manual jobs as me. Why waste the time?” Haithem explained his decision.
A firm believer in creating opportunities where there seemed to be none, he rummaged through the neighbourhood, going to stores, workshops, construction sites, offering his services and asking to be taught the necessary skills. A quick learner and an excellent networker, Haithem soon expanded his CV to include construction, car maintenance, blacksmithing and carpentry. Impulsive and impatient, he enjoyed jobs where results showed quickly. “You will soon become better than me,” the owner of the car maintenance shop where he worked once told him.
Despite these successes, there was not enough work and not enough money, as Gaza economy continued to decline reaching the lowest point since 2014 war. Haithem’s dream to provide good income for his family seemed as remote as ever and he was losing his patience: “I never missed an opportunity to learn something new. Then I realised that no matter how good I became, there was no work. I prefer to die than live with this feeling.”
After finishing his cigarette, Haithem mixed with the crowd that started pushing closer to the border fence: “Once you are inside the crowd, you don’t act the same way. It’s hard to control what you do.” At one point, the fence was very close, and it seemed to him that if he just ran fast enough, he could get outside Gaza. Leave behind poverty, frustrations and the confinement of the strip, where nothing good ever happened to you. For a second, it seemed to him he was running towards a better future someplace far away, where he could live and work.
Haithem woke up on a hospital bed to face his own unbearable pain, as well as the grief and dismay of his parents. They were struggling to process the fact that only a couple of hours before he had been at home with them, and now they were seeing him with a bullet in his leg, facing the terrifying prospect of the imminent amputation. “The doctors told us that delaying the amputation would equal gambling with his life,” Haithem’s mother recalled the most difficult decision she has had to make in her life. “When he lost his leg, I lost my whole body. I lost my soul,” she added as she broke crying.
Haithem spent a week at the hospital, enduring terrible pain. As border violence escalated, Gaza’s fragile health system became quickly overwhelmed by the number of patients, and hospitals experienced a shortage of drugs, including painkillers.
After he returned home, there was more than physical pain to deal with. He started losing his temper much easier than before and gradually drifted away from his old friends. “I felt as if they were blaming me for what happened. There was always this question in the air: ’Why did you go there?’ Someone who did not live through this will never be able to understand,” Haithem said.
Gaza has some 1,600 amputees among a population of 2 million people. Half of its workforce is unemployed and the competition on the job market is fierce. People with disabilities find themselves in a disadvantage, as roads and buildings are not wheelchair accessible and many available jobs require physical strength.
After Hatihem was discharged from the hospital, he went back to selling cigarettes by the side of the road, one of his first jobs as a teenager. Each time, a car would stop next to him and the prospective customer would go out of the car before he managed to stand up and hand the pack through the window. He felt defeated. He could not bear the thought that people were pitying him and quickly gave up the business. As he was trying to find new opportunities, the future seemed more uncertain than ever. “Before I was constantly on the move,” said Haithem, “being able to go many places and get there fast, was how I managed to get work.”
According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, 136 people lost limbs since violence escalated in the border areas more than a year ago. During the physical rehabilitation sessions, Haithem met other young people going through a long and painful process of learning to walk and live again. Whenever he heard about someone who was injured and lost a limb, he went to visit. Remembering how isolated he felt in the first months of his own recovery, he tried to find the words he wished someone else had told him: “I said to them that losing a limb did not mean you would be imprisoned for the rest of your life. You can still do things.”
Last April, Haithem joined an amputee football team. When I went to see the training for the upcoming game, I couldn’t find him among the players stretching and warming up in the bright spring sun. Finally, I noticed him standing outside, smoking alone. He had spilled coffee on his new uniform and got so upset about it, he decided not to play. Soon, however, changing moods quickly as he does, he rejoined the training. While he was running and hitting the ball, sending it across the field with force and intensity, it seemed that nothing in the world could stop him; not the geopolitical impasse that is drowning Gaza and its people deeper every day, not the worsening economic crisis, not the isolation of the tiny strip of land where travel is a privilege reserved to the fortunate few.
When we spoke about the future, in Haithem’s tone I could read many uncertainties, mixed with cautious optimism and his usual impatience. Last summer, he met a girl through a camp for people with disabilities. He does not think about marriage. He does not have the money and does not want to be responsible for more people. He applied for a project grant from the Red Cross to open a video game cafe in his neighbourhood. He thought it through very well and is sure he will succeed: “I sent my application a week ago and still haven’t heard anything. If they don’t accept to support my project, I will find something else. But I am fed up. Nothing ever changes.”
Resolution : 5760x3840
Orientation : landscape
Colour/B&W : colour