Ahed Bseiso was disoriented, shocked and numb to the immense pain that would soon take over after she was injured by Israeli bombing of her family home in northern Gaza.
“All I could see was white fog… For a second I thought I was dead,” Ahed told Al Jazeera, reliving the events of December 19.
That day, following her routine since October 7, when Israel launched its most brutal attack on Gaza to date, the 17-year-old student and her older sister Mona went up to the sixth floor of their apartment building at 10:30 a.m.
They went there to call their father, who lives abroad. They tried to speak to him daily to tell him they were still alive in the midst of a siege, intense bombardment, and a severe lack of essential supplies.
Power outages and repeated jamming of telecommunications in Gaza force many people to climb onto a roof to catch a signal, find signal boosters or use eSIM cards connected to any regional telecommunications operator.
Ahed said she noticed an unusually large Israeli tank outside the building, but she didn’t think much of it because their house had been surrounded by army vehicles after a truce between Israel and Hamas ended in November.
She sat down and prepared to dial her father’s number.
‘I managed to say “I’m alive”‘
“I crossed my legs and all of a sudden I was upside down,” she said.
Ahed had lost a limb – almost her entire right calf – and was bleeding profusely.
Her shock was so severe that she remained silent, as did her sister – she later realized that “Mona was afraid to call me in case I didn’t answer.”
“Finally, as I realized what had just happened, I managed to say, ‘I’m alive.’
Ahed’s cousins rushed to carry her downstairs. She remembers looking down and screaming, asking her cousins if her leg was still there because she couldn’t see it.
“My cousin just covered my eyes,” she remembers.
The only place they could put Ahed down was on the dining table, where her mother kneaded bread dough earlier, a common sight in Gaza homes as Israel’s complete siege rendered food and basic necessities rare.
Someone ran to get his uncle, Hani, an orthopedist and the only doctor among the 30 relatives living in the family building.
Hani had sent his wife and four children out of the enclave at the start of the offensive, while he remained there.
And so, he found himself looking at his niece’s severed leg and knowing he had to save her, without medical supplies, anesthesia or even clean gauze.
Today in Gaza, doctors have to perform procedures with nothing, not even to control pain, due to severe shortages imposed by the siege.
Hani had to make a difficult but obvious choice: amputate what was left of her lower leg and quickly sew the artery shut so her niece wouldn’t bleed to death.
“I had nothing. I remembered my briefcase was in my room, so I asked my nephews to get it… There was nothing in there except unsterilized gauze,” Hani said.
“I stayed so Ahed could live”
Hani didn’t know how to clean the wound or control the bleeding, a seemingly impossible task without stitches.
All the while, Gaza’s largest medical center, al-Shifa Hospital, was “a five-minute drive away” but was both inaccessible and out of service because of the fighting, Hani said.
Like most hospitals in the enclave, al-Shifa was attacked and raided in November, forcing thousands of injured and displaced Palestinians to flee and putting the hospital out of service.
Hani looked around the room desperately, searching for anything to make this terrible process a little more manageable. Near the kitchen sink, he saw a sponge and a container filled with dish soap.
“I started to clean the wound but I felt Ahed’s eyes piercing me. She begged me not to cut off the rest of her leg,” Hani said.
His heart was breaking and tears were streaming down his face, knowing what he had to do while Ahed was fully conscious.
“I wondered which person could handle the pain of amputation without anesthesia,” Hani said.
So he operated on his niece with a kitchen knife and used a needle and thread from a sewing kit to sew up the largest artery.
When asked how she was able to bear the pain, Ahed said a strange sense of calm took over.
“I used to recite verses from the Holy Quran all the time,” she said.
To dress his wounds, the family had to wash the gauze in hot water and dry it so his uncle could put it back on his leg.
Knowing that Ahed was prone to infections, Hani said he took “all the antibiotics and painkillers in the house” and rationed them to her, mostly on an empty stomach, because there was no food.
It was only five days later that Hani was able to transfer her to a medical facility – a day after Israeli tanks withdrew from the area. There, Ahed underwent several surgeries, including one to repair her broken left leg.
But that’s still not enough, Hani said.
“She needs much more… cosmetic repair surgery for her amputated leg, an artificial limb,” Hani said.
“I could have left with my wife and children, but God made me stay. I stayed so Ahed could live.
Ahed is part of a generation of young amputees emerging from the enclave in the wake of Israel’s relentless attacks.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, more than 10 children have lost one or both legs every day in Gaza since October 7.
This represents more than 1,000 children.
Amputations are “common practice”
Medical professionals say many of those killed in Gaza since October 7 could have been saved if they had been able to reach a hospital.
Abed, an orthopedic doctor with Doctors Without Borders – also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – said doctors in Gaza have come to rely on sedating patients due to the lack of anesthesia.
“We are short of medicines of all kinds,” said Abed, who works at the Indonesian field hospital in Rafah and asked that only his first name be used for security reasons.
“We rely on painkillers like paracetamol and we try a local anesthetic to reduce the pain,” he said.
According to Abed, patients undergo “traumatic amputation” on a daily basis, adding that most patients are children.
When a hospital receives an influx of injured people, it can take hours for a person to get to the operating room, making it impossible to salvage a limb and making amputation necessary “to save life.” of the patient,” he explained.
According to the Gaza Health Ministry, Israel has killed nearly 27,000 people and injured some 65,000 others in its attacks on Gaza since October 7. Nearly a quarter of the injuries involved children, the ministry said.
Ahed said she was changed forever. Before the offensive, she was enrolled to study pharmacy. But now, she can no longer stand “anything related to medicine” because of what she experienced.
“I’m going to change my major,” she said. “I’m going to become an interior designer and prove to the world that I can still lead a normal life despite my physical disability.”