Gazan doctor struggles to save lives amid exhaustion, loss, and horrors of war

Dr. Suhaib Alhamss kept awake at night by explosions and screams of patients, as his hometown of Rafah, a smuggling hub heavily damaged in war, becomes refuge for displaced

Dr. Suhaib Alhamss, the director of the Kuwaiti Hospital in Gaza's southern city of Rafah, performs surgery on a patient, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Dr. Suhaib Alhamss, the director of the Kuwaiti Hospital in Gaza's southern city of Rafah, performs surgery on a patient, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

For a few hours every day or night, Dr. Suhaib Alhamss tries to sleep on a thin mattress in an operating room. He swings in and out of half-consciousness, both too tired to open his eyes and too tense to let go. Thunderous shellfire often rattles the windows of the hospital he directs in the southern Gaza Strip.

But the worst sounds, Alhamss said, come from inside Kuwaiti Hospital: the cries of tiny children with no parents and enormous wounds. The panicked screams of patients jolted awake to the realization that they’ve lost a limb.

The Israel-Hamas war, which erupted 100 days ago Sunday after the terror group launched its October 7 onslaught in Israel, has exposed him, his staff, and the people of Gaza to a scale of violence and horror unlike anything they had seen before. It has rendered his hometown unrecognizable.

“This is a disaster that’s bigger than all of us,” Alhamss, 35, said by phone between surgeries.

His hospital, donated and funded by Kuwait’s government, is one of two in the city of Rafah. With just four intensive care beds before the war, it now receives some 1,500 wounded patients each day and at least 50 people dead on arrival — adults and children with shrapnel-shattered limbs and pulped bodies, bone-exposing wounds, and tattered flesh.

War erupted between Israel and Hamas after the terror group’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people amid executions, rapes, the burning of homes with people inside and other atrocities,  and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians.

Dr. Suhaib Alhamss, the director of the Kuwaiti Hospital in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, speaks with patients during his workday outside the X-ray department of the hospital, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza, which the Hamas-run health ministry has said killed over 23,000 people since. These figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 8,500 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Israel faces a difficult task limiting civilian casualties in its mission to eliminate Hamas. It has repeatedly said the terror group is using civilians as human shields, embedding itself in civilian infrastructure, including by locating operations bases under hospitals. Captured Hamas terrorists have confirmed the claims, explaining that Hamas knows Israel will not bomb a medical center.

To make room for the daily rush of war-wounded, Alhamss has crammed a few dozen extra beds into the intensive care unit. He cleared out the pharmacy, which was largely empty anyway since the siege had deprived the hospital of IV lines and most medicines. Still, patients sprawl on the floors.

“The situation is completely out of control,” he said.

A urologist by training and a father of three, Alhamss has watched aghast as his city and hospital have transformed over the course of the war.

With its low-rise concrete buildings and trash-strewn alleys teeming with unemployed men, Rafah, the strip’s southernmost city, has long been a squalid place straddling the Egyptian frontier. Notorious as a smuggling capital during the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, including for arms and materials used to build weapons, it contains Gaza’s only border crossing that doesn’t lead into Israel.

Israel has said its 16-year blockade is aimed at limiting the ability of Hamas — which openly seeks Israel’s destruction and has vowed to repeat the October 7 massacres if given the chance — to arm itself, since it seized power from rival Palestinian Authority forces in a bloody coup in 2007.

Now, Rafah is a flashpoint in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Apartment towers have been blasted into flat, smoldering ruins. Israel’s evacuation orders and expanding offensive across the Strip have swelled Rafah’s population from 280,000 to 1.4 million, leaving hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians jammed into flimsy tents smothering the streets.

Smoke billows above buildings in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli bombardment on January 13, 2024. (AFP)

Most people spend hours each day in search of food, waiting in motionless lines outside aid distribution centers and sometimes plodding kilometers on foot to carry back canned beans and rice.

The faces Alhamss sees around the city have changed, too, as Israel presses on with its goal of destroying Hamas. Fear and strain crease the features of his colleagues, Alhamss said. Blood and dust smear the faces of the incoming wounded, while waxy gray skin and eyes circled by darkening rings are marks of the dying.

“You can see the exhaustion, the nervousness, the hunger on everyone’s faces,” Alhamss said. “It’s a strange place now. It’s not the city I know.”

Aid trucks have entered Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. But it’s nowhere near enough to meet the besieged enclave’s surging needs, humanitarian officials say. Hamas has stolen much of the aid entering the Strip, according to testimonies of Gazans and videos showing masked, armed men hijacking trucks.

In the absence of vital equipment, medical staff have applied their ingenuity to new ends. Alhamss dresses patients’ wounds with burial shrouds.

“Each day I have people who die before my eyes because I don’t have medicine or burn ointment or supplies to help them,” he said.

He is too overwhelmed to dwell on all that he’s seen, but some images spring up unbidden: the vacuous stare of a young boy who survived a strike that killed his entire family, a newborn rescued from his dead mother’s womb.

“I think, how will they go on? They have no one left in this world,” Alhamss said.

Dr. Suhaib Alhamss, the director of the Kuwaiti Hospital in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, takes a break to eat with his young daughters during their weekly visit to the hospital, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

His thoughts turn to his own children — 12-year-old Jenna, 8-year-old Hala, and 7-year-old Hudhayfa — sheltering at their grandmother’s Rafah apartment. He sees them once a week, on Thursdays, when they come to the hospital to give him a hug.

“I am terrified for them,” he said.

Alhamss knows fellow doctors and nurses who were killed in their homes or on the way to work by artillery, missiles, exploding drones — so many kinds of incoming fire. He has lost dozens of his medical students at the Islamic University of Gaza where he teaches, who he described as ambitious men and women “with so much life left to live,” he said.

But grief is a luxury he cannot afford. When asked how he felt, he answered with a simple “It’s God’s will.”

“We all will die in the end, why be afraid of it?” Alhamss asked. “We have no choice but to try to live in dignity, to help those we can.”

Most Popular
read more: