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What It’s Like to Be a UNICEF Aid Worker Shot at in Gaza

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UNICEF team evacuates children from Gaza’s Kamal Adwan Hospital

Photo: Anadolu via Getty Images

As of early April, at least 224 aid workers have been killed in Gaza — a small number of the estimated 34,000 people killed since Israel began bombarding the territory after October 7. Thousands more aid workers still toil to distribute food, fuel, and medical supplies inside the occupied territory, which the United Nations says is on the brink of famine. In early April, UNICEF spokesperson Tess Ingram spent two weeks in Gaza helping to deliver aid. The riskiness of her mission was underscored on April 9 — the week after seven members of World Central Kitchen were killed — when her convoy was shot at near an Israeli checkpoint to bring much-needed aid in the north. I spoke with Ingram about her close call, the daily challenges of entering and living in Gaza, and the child she met who was killed while trying to find parsley for dinner.

What was your experience crossing over from Egypt into Gaza?
You’re sitting there, and it’s kind of like a terminal — there’s an immigration desk, and you’re waiting to get called. You go up and get a photo with your passport, they check the luggage, and then you move through and do the same on the Palestinian side.

You can smoke inside there, and there’s not really ventilation, so it’s very smoky inside. There’s no food or water, so you only have what you brought with you. It’s busy and it’s loud. Lots of crying babies. There’s one bathroom, and it’s very unclean.

The whole time that you travel in the convoy on the way through, you’re not really allowed to get out of the car at the checkpoints. Some people pop out to have a smoke, but there’s not really bathrooms there either. So you can imagine it’s a ten-, 12-hour journey and then you get to the point of crossing and, yeah, one loo.

What happens once you’re inside Gaza?
Once you’re through the Palestinian side, there’s another passport and bag check. Then a UNICEF car picks us up. It’s a big white armored vehicle. I think it’s a Land Rover. From there, it’s probably 45 minutes from the crossing to our base, which is on the border of Rafah and Khan Younis on the western side of Gaza near the coast. Once you’re in, you don’t exit again until you’re on the manifest to leave, which for me was two weeks later.

What is it like getting around Rafah now?
Rafah is chaotic. There are people moving everywhere by car, donkey, foot, bicycle, motorbike — and big U.N. vehicles trundling through. It’s very uncontrolled, and it’s very crowded. There are 1.2 million people in a town that was built for 250,000, 300,000 people. Further north, the main checkpoints are at Wadi Gaza, the river valley that divides Gaza in half about 75 percent of the way up. And that controls the access to the north. There are two ways to go north — the Salaheddin Road, which runs up the guts of Gaza, and the Al Rashid Road, which is by the coast. The coastal road is like an American suburban street, one car going in each direction, no markers in the middle. The Salaheddin Road is more like a small American highway, with two lanes of traffic in each direction. At the moment, it’s less congested; there are fewer cars because of the lack of fuel and the damage to cars. One of my colleagues lives in Rafah, and she used to work at the UNICEF office in Gaza City, and she told me that this highway used to be so busy, and she’d sit in traffic for hours, but now you can move through quite freely.

In Rafah, my colleagues say that a drive that used to take ten minutes now takes about 30 to 40 minutes because you have to move so slowly. The roads have also narrowed because a lot of makeshift shelters have been built off the sides of buildings, so it’s narrowed the width of the roads. There’s also people setting up small stands on the side of the road selling goods and things. The destruction surrounding the road is tremendous. Upside-down cars standing up on their ends, burnt-out buildings, massive holes in buildings, buildings completely reduced to rubble, large bits of steel. It looks almost apocalyptic. It’s like something you’d see in a film.

Could you walk me through a day in Gaza?
I would wake up around half past six in the morning. We did not sleep well. The bombardments are really loud at night. The first week was really loud, walls shaking loud. It sounded like thunder.

Our lodging is a two-story house with a number of bedrooms that we’re all living and working out of. We bring in some supplies with us when we come. When I enter Gaza, I get a bit of a shopping list of rice, eggs, oranges, always coffee and chocolate. And we bring these things in with us. It’s very basic while you’re there.

For breakfast most days, it’s a little sachet of instant porridge and a large pot of coffee, and then we would go about our days. There’s a joint-operations center where humanitarian organizations meet, and there’s some desks there. Often colleagues will go there for meetings with other U.N. agencies. There’s a daily meeting there on the status of operations.

I was generally going to places where I could meet families and speak to them about their experiences. Other than the distribution of aid in the north, I went to a women’s center where we were registering people for a distribution of children’s clothes. And I also went with partners to two different sessions for mental-health and psychosocial support for children. Also a lot of hospitals. I went to five, six different hospitals. As a communications person, I spend a lot of time looking for children to talk to and spending time with them and their families in the hospitals. Also, talking to doctors to try and understand the situation for medical staff and what sort of cases they’re broadly seeing in these hospitals.

What happened on April 9, the day you were shot at on the way to the Kamal Adwan Hospital?
We left a bit late, around 9 a.m., and were instructed to pull into the designated holding area at 10:30 a.m. at an Israeli checkpoint on the Salaheddin Road, roughly three-quarters of the way into the territory. We were a convoy of three cars and two trucks. I was in the last car, which was hit by three bullets, two in the side and one in the front.

Inside the car, it was so loud. It was that classic thing of a hundred things going through your head in the space of a minute. Are we all inside the car? Are we okay? Is my helmet on? Of course, your heart rate goes up. But also I was trying at that same time to look out the window, trying to understand, What’s happening, where is the shooting coming from? Where is it being directed? The shootings appear to come from the north from the direction of the checkpoint toward what appeared to be civilians who then turned and ran in the other direction. So I’m looking at, Who are they? Are they injured? Are they okay?

You said that the fire came from the direction of the checkpoint. Does that suggest that the IDF was firing or is it unclear? 
It came from the direction of the checkpoint, and we’ve raised it with the relevant authorities. We’re still waiting for an official response. We’re also calling for an independent investigation into the incident because as I said before, this is not something that should happen on a mission in which we’ve coordinated with Israeli officials — particularly when we’ve been instructed to wait at a designated holding area where our presence is well known and we’re in clearly marked U.N. vehicles. And after the World Central Kitchen incident, I think this is just another example of the fact that these coordination systems are not protecting humanitarian workers in Gaza because they’re not being respected.

How did that incident change the rest of your experience in Gaza?
It made me more apprehensive about my own safety, particularly about returning to the north days later, knowing that something like that could happen. And as I said, this was always in the back of my mind because this is not an isolated incident and has been occurring for six months in various forms. But it’s different when it’s you, I think.

And we’re some of the most protected people in the Gaza Strip. What is it like to be a child experiencing this every day? They don’t have the helmets and the PPE and the armored vehicles. And I saw that in the hospitals — the children with bullet wounds, children with major injuries from explosives, broken limbs.

What was your experience with children who were being cared for at the hospitals in Gaza?
At Gaza European Hospital near Khan Younis, I met a 10-year-old boy named Mustafa. Met is probably a strong word, because he was in a medically induced coma. Mustafa had been shot in the head 48 hours earlier. His dad and his grandmothers were by his bed, and they told me that he had just left their tent in the Al-Mawasi area, which is the supposed safe zone where people have been instructed to evacuate to. And he’d left the tent to go and find some parsley to add to dinner, I think, and he didn’t come back, and they found him on the ground.

And when I met them in the hospital, he had been sedated to try and stabilize him. The medical staff said they had just kind of reduced the sedation to see if he could stabilize without it. And he appeared to be doing okay, but he was still in a really critical condition. He was going to need a medevac, but they’re really difficult to get. I came back 48 hours later to check on him, and he was gone. He had died.

There was another girl, Juri, who I met that will stay in my head forever. She is 9, and she was at her grandparent’s house in Rafah playing with her uncle’s bird in a birdcage when the house was hit by an air strike. She has major blast wounds — major, major blast wounds that remain open. When I met her, it had been 16 days since the incident, and she was lying in bed with open wounds because they hadn’t been able to do that level of reconstructive surgery and were waiting for a medevac. They were just basically trying to drain the wounds and keep them clean and give her painkillers, but she was in so much pain. And she said to me, “I don’t know why this has happened to me. I don’t understand what’s happening.” She just wanted to see her friends and go back to school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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