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Humanitarian groups scramble to provide aid in Gaza as famine is 'imminent'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Famine is imminent in northern Gaza - that's just one of the findings of a U.N.-backed report out this week. Humanitarian organizations are struggling to get aid in, as they have been since the war began, after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. Christopher Lockyear is the secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, and he is in Gaza right now. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER LOCKYEAR: Thank you for having me on.

SHAPIRO: You entered Gaza through the Rafah border a couple of days ago. What have you seen since you arrived?

LOCKYEAR: Well, honestly, it's hard to put in words the things that I've seen over the last couple of days. One moment that stuck out was yesterday morning - I visited the Al-Aqsa Hospital in the middle area of Gaza. And, really, the pressure on that hospital was just incredible. There were people lining the corridors, waiting for their wounds to be redressed, waiting to go into surgery. There was a room of dialysis machines that was running round the clock with people queuing to have their treatment. There's a morgue on the hospital grounds. And I walked past, and there were bodies lying there everywhere.

One of the most distressing things that I heard were some of the impossible choices that our teams and the teams of the Ministry of Health are facing. For example, they're having to weigh out the use of hospital beds between trauma cases after surgery with the need for creating space for the rising number of malnutrition cases that we're getting. And so there's horrible, horrible trade-off between malnutrition and trauma.

SHAPIRO: I suppose it goes without saying that there are people who are dying who, under different circumstances - if there were the supplies, the beds, the resources, the medical staff - might not lose their lives.

LOCKYEAR: Absolutely. That's very, very obvious. I mean, if you just look at the health system itself - well, there is no health system left, really. I mean, it's been systematically destroyed and attacked. What - the aid that is getting in there is a drop in the ocean. I mean, any hospital is under so much pressure that we can't imagine the possibility of seeing everybody. And that's before we start to talk about supply of food, electricity. And just getting the expertise - the humanitarian expertise - into the Gaza Strip is something incredibly complicated. I myself was delayed a day getting into here. So there's - it's a hugely complicated thing to be able to even provide the most basic of assistance.

SHAPIRO: I know your staff has been struggling to function in a war zone for months now. What have they told you about the difference from the beginning of the conflict until now?

LOCKYEAR: I mean, what we've managed to do is to develop some really important programs in the Gaza Strip. But we've had to evacuate nine times since the start of this war. And, really, from hospital to hospital is no way to be able to confidently guarantee the continuity of care for the critical cases. That's something that is very difficult.

I've been speaking to our teams who are living in tents just around the corner from where I am now. If they have a space in a garage, they consider themselves to be really fortunate. I was chatting to a psychologist today in one of our programs, and she herself lost 10 family members just a few days ago. So we - we're now at the stage where, you know, we need psychologists for the psychologists.

SHAPIRO: You recently spoke to the U.N. Security Council, and you said one of the most immediate fears is a ground offensive in Rafah. This is the border city...

LOCKYEAR: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Where more than a million people are sheltering right now. What would an operation like that mean?

LOCKYEAR: It's terrifying. I'm trying to get my head around it. I mean, a ground offensive in this area where I am now would be absolutely horrific. I mean, and where do people go? I mean, just two days ago, there was fighting around the Shifa Hospital in the north, and people were told to evacuate there to the al-Mawasi area of Rafah, which is literally exactly where I'm sitting now. They couldn't move because of Israeli military checkpoints on the way.

But, I mean, I've just been looking at photos from a team of ours that managed to very briefly get up around the Nasser Hospital. And the photos that they're showing me are showing the whole area completely pulverized. So I would call on everybody who has the power to do so to halt this utterly catastrophic thing, including the U.S. government. If you are providing weapons that allow this to happen, that must stop.

SHAPIRO: And so between the looming famine in northern Gaza and the threat of a ground offensive in southern Gaza, these two threats both seem impossible and imminent. Like, how do you weigh the two? How do Gazans make any kind of a decision about what to do?

LOCKYEAR: I mean, I've been here for a couple of days now, and I'm not sure I'm any more able to answer that question. I mean, what is needed, above and beyond everything else, is for this war to stop. I mean, to be able to get the aid in, to be able to get the assistance in and to be able to - well, first and foremost, to stop the indiscriminate killing of the people - and then secondly, to be able to get a reasonable amount of aid - and quality aid - into the Gaza Strip - that's the No. 1 factor that will enable us to start to be able to prioritize humanitarian assistance in a meaningful way.

SHAPIRO: And so while you are there in Gaza, what are you personally most focused on doing with your limited time and resources as the leader of this organization that has overwhelming demands, with also limited time and resources?

LOCKYEAR: I mean, I'm spending as much time as possible as I can with the teams on the ground here. And I've seen horrendous things over the last couple of days, but I've also seen some beautiful things in terms of people coming together, being creative, trying to work out how to do the best for each other and for...

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about one of those things?

LOCKYEAR: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I've just come this morning from the Indonesian Rafah field hospital. What I'm seeing there is medical staff who have come from all over, and they're retraining to be able to treat the wounds and be able to address the wounds in a way which is ensuring that there can be the continuity of care for people who have really horrendous injuries. They've got direct blast wounds from the bombing. They've also got horrific burn wounds.

You ask what I'm trying to do while I'm here - I mean, I feel like the best thing that I can do is try and illustrate to some degree what is what is happening.

SHAPIRO: Christopher Lockyear is the secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, speaking with us from Gaza. Thank you so much for your time.

LOCKYEAR: Thank you. 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.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Kathryn Fox
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.