Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Gaza Hospital: A tale of war and determination | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – The shell of a tall building stands in the center of the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut. The building, once the Gaza Hospital, is now referred to simply as the Gaza Building. During the 1970s it was one of the busiest hospitals in the Palestinian refugee camps, funded by the Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO], whilst today it has been converted into a residential dwelling. This building houses bitter memories of the most atrocious event in Palestine’s recent history, namely the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. These memories are the subject of “Gaza Hospital”, a documentary which was screened, earlier this year, as part of the London Palestine Film Festival [LPFF]. This screening was following by a rare opportunity to talk to director, Marco Pasquini, along with filmmaker Monica Maurer and Dr. Swee Ang, both of whom were at the Sabra and Shatila camps 30 years ago.

Completed in 2009, the documentary’s UK premiere this year coincided with the 30-year anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The screening was co-presented by Medical Aid for Palestinians [MAP], an organization that was founded by a group of doctors, including Dr. Ang, following the Sabra and Shatila massacre, for the purpose of providing medical assistance to Beirut, Ramallah and Gaza City.

“Gaza Hospital” weaves original archive footage of the Sabra and Shatila camps – including the Gaza Hospital – taken 30-years ago by filmmaker Monica Maurer 30-years ago with more recent footage of the camps. Marco Pasquini also recorded eye-witness accounts of the massacre from Dr. Ang, Dr. Aziza Khaldi, Nurse Eileen Seigel and others who were working at Gaza Hospital at the time.

This touching and indeed heartbreaking document is a raw account of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, particularly its documentation of eye-witness accounts of the massacre and Maurer’s never-seen-before footage of the camps. In the documentary, Dr. Ang and her colleague Nurse Seigel recall the difficult working conditions at Gaza Hospital due to the siege of the camps the hospital, the lack of medicine, and the relentless drone of Israeli fighter planes overhead.

The documentary includes seamless back and forth shots between 1982 and today which showcase dilapidated concrete buildings that can be seen throughout the refugee camps, creating a disorientating but palpable connection between the past and the present.

Pasquini reveals that “Gaza Hospital” took a total of 5 years to complete, adding that this was due to all the research that was required, as well as the difficulty in locating people who had witnessed the massacre.

Maurer, a German-born filmmaker, worked with the Palestine Film Unit documenting the work and struggle of the revolutionary PLO more than 30 years ago. Her original footage shows the PLO in action, as well as the hospital staff – including Dr. Ang and Nurse Seigel – helping the wounded and attempting to reassure the children following the massacre. The footage also shows hospital staff moving hospital beds into safer positions. During the documentary, Nurse Seigel related that “when Israeli fighter planes would fly overhead, breaking the sound barrier, we had to move the patients to the lower levels [for safety].”

Dr. Ang also recounted the horrors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, revealing that “we soon realized that those who were killed by gunfire were the lucky ones…people were killed mercilessly.”

One piece of footage from 1982 shows a Palestinian woman – hand over her mouth and nose to stifle the stench – searching through the bodies of the dead, many of whom had been mutilated beyond recognition, in search of a loved-one.

At one point, the documentary cuts to footage of Yasser Arafat speaking about the Gaza Hospital and pledging to establish an operating theater in its basement. From here, the documentary cuts to footage of the present state of the basement, which now lies neglected and dilapidated, save for a small gym on one side. We then see Dr. Swee walk into frame, visiting the hospital where he worked more than 30 year ago, who expresses his shock at its present state.

The Gaza Hospital also served as a homeless shelter treating Lebanese and Palestinians alike, free of charge. The documentary also includes interviews with current residents of the building, including some of whom who remember when it was a hospital. Indeed Um Essam, who currently lives on the seventh floor, previously gave birth to one of her children at Gaza Hospital.

As for why he chose to film a documentary about Gaza Hospital, Director Marco Pasquini stressed that “what struck me about Gaza Hospital was the human aspect, not the political one. Clearly I had some political intention [in filming this documentary], but it was really the fact that people there were giving their lives and souls to help others.”

Pasquini was not alone in being inspired by the Palestinian refugees living in the Sabra and Shatila camps. During the discussions following the screening of the film in London, both Maurer and Dr. Ang commented on the steadfastness of the Palestinian people. Dr. Ang stressed that “to be a Palestinian, you can never give up hope. I think that is what we discovered.”

For her part, Maurer described how she was inspired by the work of the PLO to assist and empower the refugees in Lebanon. She revealed that “I started out in solidarity with the Palestinian and Lebanese people. Coming to Lebanon, it was amazing to see the infrastructure of the PLO and their revolution. Gaza Hospital was one of 80 hospitals that the PLO had built and I filmed this building 30 years before Marco [Pasquini’s] documentary. As Dr. Ang said, it was built and rebuilt over and over again.”

As for her view of Gaza Hospital 30 years ago, she added “there were maternity wards, help for pregnant mothers, and free health care for children up till the age of two, as well as vaccines. Education was seen as the best way out of occupation, there was a lot of focus on that. There were also rehabilitation centers as well as an artificial limb factory and vocational schools to assist in employment.”

“Gaza Hospital” has screened three times in Beirut. Pasquini showed an uncut version of the film to the people currently living in Gaza Building – formerly Gaza Hospital – for their approval, revealing “if they didn’t like it, I would have said ‘that’s it’ and stopped the production.”

Pasquini describes the surreal event of having all the people from Sabra and Shatila attend a screening at the American University in Beirut. The university, a highly secure campus where people are not allowed to enter without showing their ID cards, was swarmed with a mass of people who – as Palestinian refugees – did not have any Lebanese ID. He revealed “in the end, they simply opened the gates and let everybody in”, describing this as one of the best moments of his life.

“Gaza Hospital” is a timeless and awe-inspiring documentary, capturing one of the most barbaric events in Middle Eastern history.