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‘There are no safe places’ for children in Gaza, UNICEF officer says

July 23, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
Gwen Ifill talks to Pernille Ironside of UNICEF, who is in Gaza, about the toll the Israeli military offensive is having on civilians, and especially on children, the damage to infrastructure, as well as the capabilities of UNICEF to provide aid without safe humanitarian access.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Pernille Ironside of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, has been on the ground in Gaza since the conflict began. I spoke with her via Skype earlier today.

Pernille Ironside, as you travel around in Gaza, tell us, what are you seeing?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE, UNICEF: Well, the conflict has been getting steadily worse by the day, and we’re now into our 15th day here.

And with each one, the civilian casualty rate has only mounted. Amongst those, children are bearing the greatest brunt of this terrible conflict at the moment. There’s over 168 children who have died already. And we’re now over 1,100 children who have been seriously injured, maimed and even terribly burned.

The physical and psychological toll that this is having on people is — it’s truly — it’s almost indescribable. I have met with, for example, the three surviving Bakr boys who, one moment, they were on the beach playing with their cousins and the next moment, they saw pieces of four of their friends and cousins strewn around them.

These are lasting emotional and physical scars that children are bearing across Gaza Strip. I also met 4-year-old Shima in the hospital the other day. And she was longing for her mother and her siblings, all of whom died as they were seeking shelter, leaving their home in search of a safer place, and only Shima and her father survived.

The fact of the matter is, there is no safe place here. Even in the public schools and compounds and UNRWA shelters, there are no guarantees for safety.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s actually what I wanted to ask you, which is, where do people go when they go seeking shelter?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: Well, they’re gathering around the main emergency hospital in Gaza, al-Shifa. They’re gathering in mosques, in the orthodox church here in Gaza.

And they’re also gathering in school compounds, both U.N. schools and now, as those have basically reached their capacity with over 120,000 people in them, people are also pouring into public school compounds.

I visited two of these public schools today just to see how people were coping. The vast majority of nearly 1,400 people in each compound were children. I would say about 70 percent. In one alone, I checked. There were 152 children were under the age of 2.

This is an enormous civilian impact and upheaval in terms of all these lives who have literally had to flee, not knowing if they’re going to survive or not. In fact, one grandmother today said to me, 40 of them, all they could do was pray at that moment because they didn’t know — as their five-story building came crashing down around them, they didn’t know if they would live.

GWEN IFILL: What is the condition of the infrastructure, whether it’s water, electricity, even the roofs over people’s heads?  What is your sense of how damaged that all is?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: I have been visiting a number of the most critical water and sanitation installations around Gaza.

I can say that 70 percent of the population is now without access to safe water. The main sewage pumping station has been hit directly. And 40 percent of Gaza’s sewage is flowing directly into the Mediterranean now. Just down the road from there the primary sewage treatment plant was also directly hit. And the sewage flowed down the street into the neighborhoods and fields, contaminating a huge amount of area.

Water wells have been directly hit. There is at least 50 percent of all of the water and sanitation infrastructure is no longer functioning at this moment. And even when some urgent repairs could be made to reestablish some of the connections, it’s been rendered impossible, because there is no safe humanitarian access for the municipal workers to be able to make these repairs.

And, already, three of them have been killed while on duty. Beyond water and hygiene, the emotional toll — and so we have the emergency psychosocial teams who are reaching out to all the families who have lost loved ones in order to provide them with some immediate coping skills. And this is really just the first step of a very long process of healing and recovery that Gaza is going to need to undergo.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like a long process in every possible case.

Pernille Ironside, the Gaza field office of UNICEF, thank you very much.

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: Thank you.