“Hell on Earth” – Reflections from a Thai Aid Worker in Gaza

We sat down with Kunlawat “Note” Chittarat of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who recently returned from his mission in Gaza, to talk about the important life-saving work, as well as the scale of human suffering he witnessed.

Against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and the billowing smoke and rubble of Gaza buildings on the other, Note’s commute to work is far from typical. Instead of putting on a suit and tie, he dons his white vest emblazoned with the emblem of the Red Cross. Instead of packing his bag with a laptop and documents, he fills it with a list of other items, among them extra clothes, a first-aid kit, a sleeping bag, cans of tuna, a headlamp, and two battery packs, as well as a flash drive containing documents for his colleagues should the worst occur. Every day, as Note leaves his residence, one he shares with both international and twice- or thrice-displaced local ICRC staff and their families, he makes sure to take this “grab bag” with him – essentials he would need to survive for about a week if he were to get stuck in the field and not able to return.

Being in conflict zones is not a new experience for Note, whose previous work for the organization has taken him from the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand, the backwaters of Beirut, and to the frontlines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Yet, Gaza proved to be a whole new ordeal. “Traditionally, the ICRC’s war surgeons would primarily attend to the combatants wounded on the battlefield, but in Gaza, it is the first time we are taking care of literally everyone on such a massive scale,” Note said.

Sitting with Note in a cafe in one of Bangkok’s upscale malls was definitely a world away from his life in one of the most, if not the most, dangerous places on the planet. He spoke about his experience in a measured, almost matter-of-fact voice, one clearly tempered through trauma and tragedy from his six-week-long mission. Note had spent many days and nights attached to the war surgery team, which was carrying out over a dozen surgeries per day at the European Gaza Hospital in Khan Younis, one of the few “functioning” hospitals left in the besieged strip. Although “functioning” is perhaps a deeply inaccurate misnomer to describe the hospital, limited staff, scarce medical supplies, and intermittent water and energy meant that various medical procedures and post-op care became difficult, if not impossible, to plan. The hospital itself had become an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp, thronged with sheltering families, hoping to find some measure of solitude and sanctuary. But amidst the grim symphony emanating from the incessant sound of gunfire and deafening bombs outside, to the sound of crying mothers begging for help for her last surviving child, such rest and respite would not be found.

“In war surgery, doctors would sometimes be forced to make heartbreaking choices,” Note recounted. This could entail operating on patients without anesthesia, wounds are left open to monitor for infection, scalpels are sanitized as best they could only to be reused. This is repeated in endless cycles. “It had just become the horrifying new normal, an absolute surety of the harsh reality on the ground,” Note said.

Gaza had become the epicenter of human suffering, an epitome of hell on earth. Indeed, the United Nations Secretary-General said in a statement regarding Gaza that the world is witnessing an “unparalleled and unprecedented” level of civilian death. “The most painful thing was when children came up to you and asked you if everything was going to be okay – and you do not know how to answer them,” Note depicted, to the cacophony of explosions in the distance, in the viral video posted on the ICRC’s X Channel.

Yet, one of Note’s indelible experiences was through the interactions with the people he met along the way. It was spending time with the local children in the neighborhood during his downtime, giving them his extra rations, and seeing the joy on their faces despite enduring experiences that no child should ever go through. It was sharing in the relief of the mother at the hospital, learning that her only child left would live to see another day after a successful operation. As Note recalled, “when everything seems so bleak, you learn to draw strength and solace from the little things, like the trickle of water in the faucet in the morning, or children playing jump rope with torn electric cables.” The resilience, he observed, was all too often reminders of the dire humanitarian situation. “It was children chewing on rubber bands as a replacement for candy bars, or a child eating a green pea for dinner and having to call it a meal – canned food is considered a luxury,” Note says.

Like everyone, Note hopes for the ongoing talks happening in the backrooms of Doha and Cairo, and in the halls of Paris and New York, would soon result in at least a de-escalation of hostilities, if not a ceasefire. In a broader sense, we often put our faith in governments and international institutions to govern the waging of war, and to fashion peace. When asked about their role, Note said, “These institutions founded in lofty ideals and speak to our highest aspirations, they are a description of a world that ought to be and of where we want to be as a people. But the situation in Gaza is a far cry from what these goals envisioned; I felt like I was in a different world.” At the same time, possibly informed by a certain cynicism from his experiences in the field, Note thinks that it is equally as important to recognize the tendency of man to relegate to our most primitive instincts – something many would like to believe that we as a species have evolved beyond – as is the case in Gaza. “And it is on that basis that we need movements like the ICRC, who work to alleviate human suffering,” Note emphasized. It is a movement that acknowledges, but does not embrace, the limitations of man’s reasons, countering it with care and compassion, one that works to safeguard the laws of war (as contradictory as it may seem), in the face of the flawed nature of the human condition.

If there was one thing Note wanted people to take away from his story, it was for greater awareness, in a purely humanitarian sense. Even almost half a year into arguably the century’s most devastating conflict and perhaps the most deeply dividing, Note appealed for putting humanitarianism and universality at the center of the narrative. “Perhaps while it is inevitable and imperative that the discourse on what is right and wrong continues, it is just as important that there is space left for humanitarian work to not become politicized,” Note said. Even in the safety and security back home, Note sometimes feels a pang of guilt when enjoying the basic amenities we take for granted, and wishes to return to the field. And while we all may not be able to do the work that Note does, the least we could do is to recognize that regardless of which side we take in this polarizing and passionate issue, we should always, clear-eyed, afford to put our shared humanity above politics. This could also mean giving the people in the field the measures and the means to allow them to continue to carry out their crucial mission. For that is the least we could do for the people in Gaza, through all their anguish and agony, through the horror and heartache; for the families torn apart, their lives torn asunder; for the aid workers like Note, braving bombs and bullets on the way to work, lest their efforts be in vain. And it is the least we could do for the sake of our common humanity, to take us closer to where we want to be as a people.

It is based on the same premise that Robert Kennedy spoke of: “when a man acts to improve the lot of others…, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

So let us all be that tiny ripple, in working from the “world that is” towards a world that “ought to be.” A place and a time where the “Notes” of the world can cast off their white vests and would need only to don a suit and pack only a laptop to work.

Send forth your ripple of hope: 

Israel and the occupied territories | International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc.org)

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Author: Kasidit Jan