ABC RADIO NATIONAL AM: Anne Barker reports on white phosphorous in Gaza 25Aug09 August 25, 2009

AUDIO: Gaza faces long term medical needs (AM)

TEXT:  It is now more than eight months since Israeli forces bombarded Gaza but the trauma of the injuries sustained by the locals is a daily struggle and will stretch far beyond this year.

Many Gazans are still undergoing regular medical treatment for serious injuries or burns and post-traumatic stress.

Farah Abu Halima, 3, has good reason to cry. Last January a white phosphorous shell came through the ceiling of the family home at Beit Lahiya, in Gaza’s north.

The burns she suffered were so deep she faces years, maybe a lifetime, of pain. Her tiny body bears the extensive scars of repeated skin grafts.

“She had six operations for plastic surgery in Cairo”, her grandmother, Sabah Abu Halima, said.

“But when her mother died, they sent her back to Gaza.”

Sabah Abu Halima points out a blackened hole in the ceiling where the bomb hit. Her husband, daughter, three of her sons and later her daughter-in-law – the girl’s mother – all died from phosphorous burns.

The older woman too was so badly burned, she also has had four skin grafts and still needs daily hospital treatment.

“I can’t sleep at night because of the pain”, she said.

“I start scratching and it’s so painful. I ask my other sons to help me scratch.”

White phosphorous shells are banned for use in civilian areas under international law because the substance is so dangerous. The phosphorous can keep burning inside the body as long as there is oxygen.

Israel has acknowledged it used white phosphorous munitions during the January conflict but it says each and every use was in accordance with the law.

It continues to justify its bombardment in January, saying it was necessary to stop the constant rocket attacks by Hamas militants that have killed at least 12 Israeli civilians in recent years.

At Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, white phosphorous burns are not the only injuries keeping doctors busy seven months after the war.

Countless people lost limbs in the bombings. Many of them more than one.

The hospital’s head of plastic surgery, Nafiz Abu Shaban, says he still operates on about 10 war victims a week.

“Most of the operations are post-traumatic and post-burn deformities, because especially burns, continue to be operated, some of them for years,” he said.

But almost worse than the physical toll from the January war is the enduring psychological trauma that confronts much of Gaza’s population.

Psychiatrist Dr Eyad Sarraj says he and his staff are still giving post-war counselling to about 1,000 Gazans a week.

“This is a place where, in so many ways, can be like a laboratory for studying trauma and the impact of violence on people,” he said.

“One of the problems is that the trauma is ongoing. There is no end and the consequences are far reaching and very serious

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