Cancer patients and children flee ‘catastrophic’ Gaza war zone on mercy mission flight

World

The gleaming Etihad Boeing 777 they stepped into could not have made for a more stark contrast from the apocalyptic scene they’ve left behind in Gaza.

And they emerged into the cabin lights looking mostly dazed. One elderly woman hugged the first female cabin crew member she saw.

She had plenty of reason to be both grateful and immensely relieved.

She – like the nearly 200 people slowly boarding with her – was on one of the few flights out of the hell that is Gaza right now – and they had just got a ticket offering their first real chance of survival.

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The flight was one of the first few out of Gaza organised by the UAE

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Some seats were removed for those who needed to lie on stretchers

The Sky News team joined them on the flight: one of the first mercy missions organised by the United Arab Emirates to airlift wounded, sick or vulnerable children and families out of the war zone.

So far they’ve taken out two very small groups of eight. This emergency airlift outstripped the others by quite a big margin – nearly 200 patients and accompanying dependants or relatives in what turned into the largest organised so far.

Some of the elderly and sick were pushed in wheelchairs to the foot of the plane and then half carried, half helped up the steps.

Others cradled their babies or held their toddlers close.

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Those in wheelchairs were lifted onto the flight

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The flight was part of a pledged relief effort by the UAE

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Young children were also on the flight

One young girl, aged about 11, was tightly strapped to a stretcher and taken into the body of the aircraft via a hydraulic lift.

We were told she was accompanied by her sixteen-year-old sister.

“She’s very ill,” one of the medics told us, “she was severely dehydrated. We struggled to get a drip inside her and she’s got multiple trauma injuries.”

They said she had a severe brain injury which they believed was caused when the building she was in collapse on top of her. She looked in a very bad way indeed and medics have been waiting to have her airlifted to safety for a few weeks now, we were told.

Many of the passengers are cancer patients – about ninety per cent of the patients admitted onto the plane. Many are thought to have been forced to leave the Turkish cancer hospital after it was bombed.

One orthopaedic surgeon, who herself is suffering from lung cancer, described the humanitarian situation inside Gaza as “catastrophic”.

“There are about 7,000-9,000 badly injured or sick people who urgently need to be taken out of Gaza for medical treatment,” Dr Hanan Azghbi estimated.

She said her own hospital – the Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital was overwhelmed with patients lying on floors and filled with people who’d sought refuge there.

It is now one of more than 20 hospitals completely out of action leaving only a fraction still functioning.

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The UAE has pledged to aid 1,000 children

“I saw babies with double amputations,” she told us, “There are many, many people who’ve lost limbs. It is a catastrophe,” she repeated.

The medical team of 29 doctors, paramedics and emergency workers had flown into the Egypt-Gaza border unsure of who they were picking up, what the injuries or illnesses were and the extent of them.

So, they filled the plane with a range of medical equipment and medicines designed to help them cope with most eventualities.

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They set up a mini-ICU towards the rear of the plane and erected at least ten stretchers positioned over rows of folded aeroplane seats, with resuscitation equipment and drips at the ready.

In the event they needed to use only one of their makeshift stretchers positioned expertly over a series of folded airline seats.

Although later in the flight, they helped a young woman who’d had one of her legs amputated into another.

The doctors and nurses spent some time during the course of the flight administering a variety of medicines to them both including intravenous morphine and anti-dehydration nutrients.

Most of the passengers were able to be helped into their seats with a number receiving the first painkillers they’ve had access to in days or weeks.

Many of the children and babies were exhausted and appeared seriously traumatised with dark shadows under their young eyes.

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The flight after landing in Abu Dhabi

We saw one very young baby who we were told was a haemophiliac; another had a brain tumour – all the young appeared to be very thin and under weight. Many of them repeatedly asked for water and food.

Most seemed very weak.

The process to this point had been a long and exhausting one – first crossing the war zone to get to the Gaza border then going through extensive security checks which had to pass both Egypt and Israeli measures.

By the time the patients were being transported to the emergency flying hospital, the plane had been sitting on the tarmac at Arish airport for more than five hours.

The procedure to load these very seriously ill passengers was slow and careful because of their vulnerable conditions.

So much so, the cabin crew went over their maximum flying security limit of sixteen hours and on leaving Arish, the plane had to be diverted to Cairo.

A fresh flying crew was brought in to take over and two hours or so after landing in Cairo, the plane took off again, this time bound for Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

Over the next week or so, the UAE will build a field hospital in Gaza with 150 beds. Compared to the huge numbers needing help right now, it is likely to be extremely busy.

When they landed in Abu Dhabi, there was much hesitation as they made their way down the plane steps. We saw one young woman with tears running down her cheeks.

Others kissed the heads of the waiting volunteers. Even more allowed themselves a smile for the first time since leaving Gaza.

The sick will be placed in a number of hospitals able to receive their specialist care. Most have come with at least one family member accompanying them and these relatives will be accommodated nearby.

It was noticeable what few possessions the passengers arrived with.

Many came away from Gaza carrying just small plastic bags. That is all they’ve been left with.

Many have seen relatives killed and lost their homes, their jobs, their future.

And many left behind whole families in the middle o the warzone. They left Gaza not knowing if they’ll ever be back – and if they do return, just what exactly they’ll return to.

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