Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 13:27 UK

Recovery battle for Gaza war injured

Yahya Abu Saif is carried to his bed at home by his brother
Yahya is happy to visit home, but his family cannot adopt the house for him

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Gaza City

Yahya Abu Saif, 20, smiles lopsidedly as his brother steers his wheelchair along the narrow, rutted alley to his home.

It is nearly six months since an Israeli missile strike on a mosque left him close to death.

His right leg was amputated and his left side left paralysed by shrapnel that pierced his skull.

When the BBC visited him in February, the trainee teacher struggled to speak even a few despairing words as he gazed ahead into a life of dependence on others.

"I was so sad," he says. But now he is regaining some use of his left side and says he is "hopeful" about the future.

Some 5,000 Palestinians were injured in Israel's 22-day military offensive in Gaza in December and January.

The health ministry, run by the Hamas administration, says 680 of them will suffer life-long disabilities.

Bathroom problem

But in Gaza, damaged by the fighting and subject to a crippling Israeli blockade, the path to rehabilitation is strewn with obstacles.

Yahya now comes home from hospital at weekends.

"The biggest problem is the bathroom," says his mother.

Down six steep concrete steps, through a narrow, splintering door and round a corner, the toilet is a hole in the battered floor tiles.

Yahya Abu Saif's mother shows the family's bathroom
Yahya can barely stand on his remaining leg, and has to be carried to the toilet

The only wage earners in the family are two of Yahya's eight brothers, both Hamas policemen.

Thirteen people live in the five room house. They say they can afford to eat, but not well.

A local organisation has offered to build a special bathroom for Yahya.

But they say they cannot get the necessary materials. Building materials are virtually banned from entering Gaza, as Israel says Hamas could use them to build smuggling tunnels and weapons storage facilities.

Al-Wafa hospital, Gaza's only specialist rehabilitation hospital - which is treating Yahya - is also feeling the strain.

Broken glass and concrete fragments litter the corridors in its state of the art new building, which contains the coastal strip's only hydrotherapy pool.

It has never been used.

Audio slideshow: Dr Khamees al-Essay shows the damage to al-Wafa hospital

Staff say the building, due to be opened just days after Israel launched its operation, was hit by Israeli shells late at night on 15 January.

Sunlight gleams through holes in the walls, one room gapes open to the elements through a frame of twisted metal.

Israel says it "in no case intentionally targeted medical facilities", which it says Hamas used, along with mosques and other civilian buildings, for military purposes.

Hamas denies the claims. International human rights groups have said it fired rockets from civilian areas in the densely populated territory.

40% unemployed
750,000 receive Unrwa food aid
No petrol or diesel since Nov 2008 (except UN)
Half required cooking gas allowed
Recently blocked items: light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, tea, coffee, chocolate, nuts
Virtually no building materials allowed in
Source: Unrwa and World Bank

Al-Wafa's director, Dr Khamees al-Essay, says there were no fighters inside the hospital, although he cannot be certain about the area around it, which is close to the border with Israel.

Hydrotherapy uses special waves and currents to stimulate the muscles of patients with spinal injures and could have helped patients from the conflict such as Yahya, Dr Essay.

He says the damage could be repaired in three to six months, but they too cannot get the building materials.

The hospital also faces shortages of specialist equipment.

It cannot, for example, find a special right-hand controlled wheelchair for Yahya, who cannot move his left arm enough to push a conventional wheelchair.

Ordinary wheelchairs are in reasonable supply, but according to the Israeli organisation Physicians for Human Rights, a consignment of 107 electrical wheelchairs has been waiting for an Israeli green light to enter Gaza since 2 April.

Israeli authorities say nine truckloads of wheelchairs have entered Gaza since the conflict, and the electrical wheelchair shipment has been held up by "lack of information" from those trying to transfer it.

'Extremely difficult'

Leaning hard on his physiotherapist, Yahya wobbles as he balances briefly on his remaining leg.

"I really hope I will get an artificial leg one day and continue my life normally," he says.

But he has heard it is "extremely difficult" to get a prosthesis in Gaza.

Gaza's only artificial limb workshop is full of lathes, sanding machines and benches piled with part-made beige legs.

Its manager, Hazim Shawwa, says the number of amputees from the conflict remains unclear.

Hazim Shawwa, Director of Gaza artificial limb centre
Mr Shawwa says he has components for limbs for about 20 people, but has 250 in need of treatment

The centre is still assessing nearly 250 new cases that have registered since the war, normally four to five years' work, he says.

The biggest problem, he says, is bringing in some 1,000 different components, imported from Germany.

"We have enough now for maybe 20 people, but not for 250," he says, showing me a storeroom filled with shelves of carefully labelled, plastic-wrapped packages.

Some shelves are completely empty, like the one for R26, an average-sized foot.

"Even if you're short of one screw for the foot, you can't continue the prosthesis," he says.

Storeroom in Gaza prosthetic limb workshop
Some artificial limb components are missing

Israel has not turned any materials for prosthetic limbs back, but the International Committee of the Red Cross says the blockade is slowing attempts to import them.

Although medicines are allowed into Gaza, international organisations, including the World Health Organization, complain the approvals process for medical equipment is slow and bureaucratic.

Israeli authorities say the average time for approval of items, after "all the required information is received," is about 11 days.

Israel says both the blockade and the military operation were aimed at weakening Hamas and ending eight years of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

It says the blockade is currently under review.

Yahya clings to his brother's neck with his good arm, as his frail body is lifted onto the bed.

His mother bends to give him a gentle kiss.

"I am happy to see him at home, but I will be more happy when I see him here all the time, and he is walking on his own legs," she says.

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