News coverage of Gaza and Ukraine understandably focuses on how their respective wars are progressing. Bulletins report the advance and retreat of battle fronts, the tally of dead troops and civilians, the extent of damage to homes and hospitals and other buildings, the displacement of residents, and other visible evidence of the fighting.
It’s understandable. Especially for video-based news outlet: those kinds of facts grab viewers’ interest, as do interviews with locals who lose family and property.
There’s another line of coverage that gets less ink and footage, way less than it deserves. It’s the story of how difficult—but essential—tasks in war-ravaged communities are performed under intolerable conditions.
Urban war, in places like Gaza, invariably results in many, many civilian deaths. Sometimes relatives of the deceased are able to care properly for a body as they believe is appropriate, but often that’s impossible. So the dead lie in the streets or under the rubble until someone retrieves them, shrouds them, and finds a burial spot, sometimes one shared with strangers.
There are volunteers in Gaza and Ukraine who perform that very unpleasant task. They are unlikely to get paid to do it. In wartime, death often comes with significant damage to the deceased’s body. Retrieving a body while under fire is difficult; doing so when it shows major trauma adds to the difficulty.
At Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in central Gaza, Abu Saher al-Maghari shrouds the dead that are brought to the hospital, about 100 a day, sometimes twice that many. Many of the bodies are mutilated.
Al-Maghari has been performing that task at the hospital for 15 years, but not in such numbers, and certainly not with so many damaged corpses. Most of the victims he receives are women and children. Some are already in advanced decomposition with an unbearable smell.
“I start my day shrouding the dead and killed from six in the morning until eight in the evening without stopping,” he told the news outlet Al Jazeera. “Dealing with this number of torn and burned bodies, most of them children, requires a high level of psychological toughness that not every human being possesses. I face a real test every day. There is no time to cry or break down at the same time, but we are only human.”
Speaking of the effect on survivors, he said, “These moments of the final farewell are always heartbreaking and cruel. Sometimes I receive bodies that have no features, due to explosive shrapnel. Here, I tie the shroud shut to spare the family members from remembering their loved ones in such a graphic state.”
Other essential tasks deal with treating the living, rather than the dead. Health care personnel face enormously onerous working conditions in Gaza hospitals, and they are absolutely unsafe. More than 200 health care workers have reportedly been killed in Gaza by shelling and bombing since the start of the war on October 7, and another 130 have been wounded.
Some of those providing care in Gaza are residents of the enclave. Others are volunteers from across the globe, including those with the worldwide Doctors Without Borders organization. When necessary, they perform surgery by torchlight without anesthetic, using vinegar as a disinfectant. Medicine is in pitifully short supply. Hospitals are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the wounded and diseased. Agonizing choices have to be made on whom to treat.
But the doctors, nurses, and specialist employees remain at their task despite the deteriorating and increasingly dangerous conditions.
Then there are the journalists, who venture into the teeth of the fighting to keep the outside world informed about the wars.
At least 15 journalists of many nationalities have been killed in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began. More than twice that many—at least 39 at last count—have lost their lives in Gaza in just the last seven-plus weeks. The Israel-Hamas war has apparently resulted in more journalist deaths than any previous conflict of the past 30 years.
It’s not hard to see why that is the case. Urban war in a densely populated theater of operations like Gaza can’t be accurately reported by simply releasing press statements issued from military headquarters. Reporters have to be on the ground where the action is, and in Gaza under intense bombardment there’s no safe zone. The press is as vulnerable as the people.
Other jobs are equally dangerous in wartime: caring for orphaned children, transporting civilian supplies into areas under attack, teaching students in schools in the face of repeated bombing and shelling. You can probably think of other tasks that require major courage in order to maintain some semblance of life’s valued routines despite wartime conditions.
Those who persist in providing aid of all kinds to war’s victims, despite extreme danger, are heroic, and deserve our admiration and gratitude. Without them life in wartime would indeed be intolerable, even worse than we know it now. ♦