Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Gaza health officials say thousands of civilians were killed in 'evacuation' areas


There is a temporary pause in the war in Gaza, but Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and says it will again strike the militant group, quote, "wherever is necessary," unquote. In October, shortly after the war started, Israel told people to flee the north for the south. And then it continued heavy bombardments there. That's according to witnesses and satellite data reviewed by experts. Gaza health officials say thousands of civilians are said to have been killed in these, quote, "evacuation areas." NPR's producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, went with families who fled homes in north Gaza for the south, only to find that their lives are still in danger. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has this report. And here I'm going to note that it contains some disturbing scenes.


RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Israel started telling people to leave their homes in north Gaza in October. And thousands took the road israel opened for a few hours a day to reach the areas it said would be safer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: They walked for miles through the blasted landscape of buildings hit by airstrikes and the war going on around them. NPR producer Anas Baba was with them.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: You can see people. They're just, like, holding white flags between their hands. The faces of the people is just like...


BABA: And all of the artillery is getting intensive. No one is feeling safe. Nothing is safe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He sees a woman collapsed on the road, too distraught to give her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "I want my daughter," she says. There was an airstrike as they fled Gaza City. Now she can't find her 10-year-old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: A passerby tells her, "You have to stand up and continue on this road. There isn't time to mourn."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "I can't," she says. Some on this route carry or drag injured loved ones until they finally reach the Wadi Gaza wetlands that mark the part of Gaza Israel told civilians to flee to in leaflets dropped from planes and messages on social media and even phone calls.

BABA: Everyone is trying to take just a 5 minutes or 10 minutes break on the sidewalk of the street. A mother just washing her son's face. And the mother is holding a cup for her baby child.

SHERLOCK: These supposedly safer areas of central and southern Gaza are already overcrowded with hundreds of thousands of displaced.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through loudspeaker, non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: In the town of Rafah that borders Egypt, a Koranic verse rings out from the minaret of this local mosque, calling on residents to aid those seeking refuge. The imam then asks people to donate mattresses, clothes or blankets.


SHERLOCK: But the misery and the danger that awaits those displaced to the south soon becomes clear. Anas visits a school that's become a temporary refuge. It's overcrowded. And the U.N. says its shelters are also so overwhelmed that on average, 700 people share a single shower. And disease is spreading. And worst of all, the airstrikes continue here, too. I called an expert in conflict development and peacebuilding.

CAITLIN PROCTER: I think the word evacuation is really problematic here because it conjures up an idea of a safe route to a place of safety.

SHERLOCK: Caitlin Procter at the Geneva Graduate Institute challenges the Israeli notion that this is an evacuation zone.

PROCTER: I don't know how a place can be described as safe which is under regular bombardment, where there's nowhere for people to sleep. There's no food. There's no water. There are no hygiene facilities. I think there's nowhere safe in Gaza whatsoever.


SHERLOCK: The United Nations relief agency, UNRWA, says 67 of its facilities, like warehouses and schools, both used as shelters, have been directly hit or damaged and that more than half of these are located in the parts of Gaza Israel told civilians to shelter in. Satellite data analyzed by experts for NPR shows how up to 15,000 buildings in these central and southern areas of the Gaza Strip have been damaged or destroyed since the start of this war and that 94% of the damage happened after Israel ordered Palestinians to move south on October 13. And the civilian harm watchdog Airwars told NPR the number of civilians reported hurt in these areas increased in the week after Israel gave its evacuation order. Israel says it aims to destroy Hamas and prevent more attacks like the one on October 7 and rescue hostages. It says Hamas uses civilians for cover. Asked by NPR why it was attacking areas it told people to go to, the Israeli military said it would strike Hamas targets, quote, "wherever necessary."


SHERLOCK: Earlier this month, NPR producer Anas Baba arrived at the scene of one such strike on a residential block in the southern town of Rafah. It destroyed homes just near a U.N. building.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "Where is my mum?" a child cries in the darkness amid the rubble.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "Where is my dad?"

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: A man asks for his wife.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: People tell him she's been pulled out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "But my daughters," he shouts. "Please look for them." Anas sees more civilians arrive.

BABA: This is a father that just, like, grabbed his daughter from under the rubbles. Her face is totally full of blood. And another body is next to me, covered in a blanket.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Non-English language spoken).

BABA: They say that she's a woman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Non-English language spoken).

BABA: This woman is screaming loudly for an ambulance to save her nephew.


SHERLOCK: Eventually, the ambulance comes. The paramedics have to load three corpses and a wounded girl into the same vehicle because there aren't enough ambulances or fuel to make separate trips. Israel recently dropped new leaflets on one of these southern areas of Gaza that people fled to, telling them to move again. The towns that were supposed to be safer are expected to come under heavy attack once the cease-fire is over. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.

MARTIN: We have much more coverage. And for differing views of the conflict, go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.