BEIRUT: Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sitta appears ill at ease as he stares at the cup of coffee sitting on the table in front of him. “My mind is elsewhere ... I’m overwhelmed with a sense of sadness,” he says. It’s been a little bit more than a week since Abu-Sitta, chief plastic surgeon at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, returned from a medical mission at the Al-Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip.
The transition, he says, has not been easy. “I feel extremely restless,” he admits. “It’s more difficult than I thought it was going to be ... just to get back into the swing of normal life.”
Since his return to Beirut, Abu-Sitta’s mind strays frequently to the scenes of suffering in Gaza, he says. “It weighs heavily, I can’t get it out of my mind.”
It was the seventh time Abu-Sitta had traveled to Palestine on a medical mission, but the scenes he witnessed on this trip to Gaza were, he says, unprecedentedly grim.
Abu-Sitta was born in Kuwait to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother. In 1987, he moved to the United Kingdom, where he became a citizen.
The “intentional targeting of families,” Abu-Sitta says, resulted in a grotesque number of young patients.
“The sheer number of children became overwhelming. Some of them have no one to care for them at the end of the war,” he says, his face drawn. “I had a young patient who is now being looked after by her grandfather’s brother. He is the closest living relative now.”
During the 15 days he spent in Gaza, Abu-Sitta performed between five and seven surgeries each day. “We were re-sterilizing equipment so quickly in between cases that we would have to pour water, saline over them to cool them down so we could catch up,” he recalls.
His average patient was between 8 and 15 years old. Light injuries were uncommon. “I would say that 80 percent of the cases that I operated on will have some sort of disability or deformity for life,” he adds.
“Even 2008, which was bad, wasn’t like that. It wasn’t as ferocious,” he says, referring to the campaign Israel launched against Gaza in December of that year.
Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza, was bombed without warning while he was there. “There was no knock on the roof,” he says.
“There was nothing there. It was a functioning clinic.”
Thousands of displaced Gazans had sought refuge in the sweeping medical complex and were living in shameful conditions.
“Between any two poles or a tree, they had strung washing lines and sheets so they could have some semblance of personal space,” he says.
Despite the desperate conditions, Abu-Sitta did not leave Gaza because he wanted to. “I only left because the Israeli permit ran out,” he said.
Because the Gaza-Egyptian border remains closed, Abu-Sitta explains that he was required to pass through Israel – using his British passport – in order to access Gaza.
The doctor describes the Israeli border officials as “vindictive.”
“They made me wait for eight hours, after two hours of interrogation,” he says. “On the way back ... they had me down in my boxers while they searched me.”
He does not believe the hostilities will end in the near future.
Gazans will continue to fight in order to lift the siege which has “eaten away at a whole generation,” Abu-Sitta says.
Most children he treated were disturbingly underweight, the effect, he says, of “chronic malnutrition and impoverishment that the siege has caused.”
“People will go back to the fight, but they won’t go back to the siege,” he adds. “They won’t stand for it.”
Back in Beirut for now, Abu-Sitta says that for him, the fever pitch of war has dimmed. “Now, as the adrenaline wears off, the fatigue is kicking in,” he says.
He has a backlog of patients from his two weeks away, and is readjusting to a life unpunctuated by Israeli missiles.
Still, when asked if he was considering returning to Gaza in light of the renewed hostilities, he doesn’t so much as hesitate.
“Yes,” he says, his eyes snapping back into focus. “Today, I thought: there’s no reason not to. There’s so much to do.”