World

Teenager describes horror of having leg cut off on dining table without anaesthetic

It was a moment of horror from Gaza which went viral – a video of an amputation on a dining table. No anaesthetic. No bandages. Just a bucket, some soap and a kitchen knife.

It was 19 December 2023, and the war in Gaza was in its third month. Israel’s bombardment of the northern part of the narrow strip of land was at its most intense.

Inside the Bseiso family home, an apartment on the ground floor of a six-storey block not far from Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, 17-year-old Ahed Bseiso was laid across the kitchen table.

The table, where Ahed’s mother had been making bread moments before, was now a scene of unimaginable horror, as Ahed’s uncle Hani, who is a doctor, carried out an emergency operation.

Ahed’s left leg was badly wounded, and her right lower leg was in shreds.

Desperate, she had pleaded with her uncle not to amputate it but Hani knew he had no choice.

It was her leg or her life.

Minutes earlier, Ahed had been on the top floor of their building, trying to call her father who lives in Belgium. The high floors were best for phone signal and every day, she and her older sister, Mona, would head up there to tell him they were still alive.

Ahed's uncle was tearful as he amputated her leg to save her life
Image:
Ahed (left) had no anaesthetic as her uncle (right) amputated her leg

On this particular morning, as she struggled to get a connection, she noticed some large Israeli tanks outside on the street. Then a huge explosion split the air.

“I heard a bang and a wall came tumbling on top of me,” Ahed told Sky News. “There was dust all over the place and I couldn’t understand where I was.”

Trapped in the rubble, Ahed was disorientated. She called for Mona. Her mother and her cousins rushed to help. They managed to free her from the rubble, revealing the young Gazan – alive but with one leg broken and the other in pieces.

“I asked my cousin, ‘Is my leg gone?’ and he said, ‘No, don’t look’.”

Her cousins carried Ahed down the stairs to their apartment. There was gunfire outside.

“There was no surgical equipment,” Ahed recalled. “My uncle got soap and the scrubber from the kitchen and started to clean my leg… He started to cry. Then he cut my leg off.

“I remained conscious the entire time without anaesthesia. My only solace was my cousin, who stood next to me, reciting the Koran.”

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The spot where Ahed was injured

Her uncle Hani saved her life. He had also felt compelled to film the procedure; to show the world what had come of life, and death, for the people of Gaza.

“What is this injustice that has befallen us?” he screamed straight at the camera as he cleaned Ahed’s wound.

“We have been surrounded for 15 days. I had to amputate my niece’s leg without anaesthesia. Where is the mercy? Where is humanity? What have we done to deserve this?”

The decision to upload the video to social media would in time precipitate a journey for Ahed out of Gaza, to Egypt and eventually to America.


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Six thousand miles away in the small American town of Aiken, South Carolina, a woman called Wafa Abed was online. Like so many exiled Palestinians around the world, she was deeply affected by the images emerging from her homeland.

As she scrolled, she came across the video of Hani Bseiso, his niece and the amputation. The Bseisos were strangers to her but the footage had an immediate impact.

“You have to get this girl out,” Wafa told her son Tareq. “You have to do this.”

Tareq Hailat, 27, a medical student, had recently taken on a new part-time role. As an Arab-American, he was consumed by the tragedy of the Israel-Gaza conflict, and had started working for a charity.

The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) is an American charity with a long history of helping the region’s vulnerable children. Since this latest conflict began it has tried, initially with little success, to evacuate injured children.

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Tareq Hailat, Head of the Treatment Abroad Program, Palestine Children’s Relief Fund

Now, desperate to help Ahed and others who he had seen online, Tareq began to put together a global network of strangers. Despite the huge obstacles in his path, he pulled every lever and followed every lead.

PCRF’s long-established status in Gaza and the West Bank – combined with this young medical student’s drive and determination – began to work wonders.

“I kept working on ensuring that we can pull Ahed out,” Tareq said over a Palestinian breakfast at his parents’ South Carolina home.

“I started reaching out to my professors and they connected me with different physicians here in the US. Once that was established, then I started connecting with people inside Gaza and in Egypt.”

It took over a month, and 17 failed attempts, to get Ahed out of Gaza.

Israel repeatedly denied her permission to leave. Her ambulance convoy was attacked and the vehicle next to hers was destroyed.

In Egypt, in preparation, there were passports to apply for, and visas to be issued.

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Ahed’s journey out of Gaza was fraught with danger


For Tareq and his new team, it felt like a logistical and bureaucratic impossibility. He was on the phone daily, sometimes hourly, for two weeks to the Red Crescent.

“They would ask the Israelis for permission to go up to the north of Gaza to get her. We would never get the green light. Finally, we did.”

Ahed Bseiso arrived in Greenville, South Carolina, on 17 February 2024, having just turned 18.

She had never left Gaza before and was now in a new world with her sister Mona beside her. The rest of the Bseiso family had to remain behind, trapped in Gaza.

Greenville was where they ended up because Tareq studies medicine there and he knew people willing to treat her injuries.

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Ahed’s sister Mona travelled with her to America

Ahed was sitting in her wheelchair, with her sister, a faint smile on her face, when I first met her.

Like Tareq’s mother and many millions of others, I had seen the viral video months earlier. I never imagined I would meet the young woman at the heart of it.

“Marhaba,” I said – Arabic for hello. She replied in English. “Hello.”

I wasn’t quite sure where to begin. But she chose to start on that fateful day explaining it all with bravery and poise.

I asked her the question I’d wondered about ever since I’d first seen the video. Why wasn’t she screaming? How on earth did she cope?

​​”The strength came from within me,” she replied, “…because I never want to give my occupier the opportunity that they were able to kill us and silence us.”

Last week was the latest stage of Ahed’s journey, from South Carolina to Colorado. The strangers compelled to help her through every step were taking her to see a doctor in Denver.

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Ahed was grateful for the kindness she received in America

Dr Omar Mubarak is a leading American vascular surgeon and another remarkable character who makes things happen. He’d been contacted by the PCRF and immediately wanted to help.

Beyond the welcome party he gathered at the arrivals hall at Denver airport, Dr Omar had arranged a new prosthetic leg. For free, for Ahed.

The morning of the fitting began with a smile. Ahed had left her right shoe in Greenville. There wouldn’t be anything to put on the new foot. She giggled and we all laughed.

The fitting itself was private – her moment.

But then, as the clinic door opened, one tentative step. Then lots. Ahed marched down the hospital corridor. “It feels great,” she said.

Dr Omar watched, smiling, but with a tear in his eye. “She took to it like a fish. She made four steps before we could stop her. Awesome day. Awesome. She’s extremely excited.”

Ahed seemed so grateful to those who have helped her, only a handful of whom could be mentioned in this story.

“It is something I will never forget,” she said.

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But how did she feel about coming to America – a place where she’s found such kindness but the country which is the biggest supporter of the nation which caused her injuries? It was a tricky question but an important one.

Her answer spoke volumes.

“When you see people happy to see you or trying their best to support you… it is something I will never forget.

“But the first thing I thought was ‘how I could leave Gaza and seek treatment in a country that is possibly – even more than Israel – largely responsible for my condition?'”

Out of a war which has stirred so much and damaged so many, I found a young woman grateful but hugely conflicted too.

Ahed will now head back to South Carolina to continue her recovery. She wants to return home as soon as possible.

“I’m happy for this opportunity, but my heart is still with my family in northern Gaza, which is the most terrible place on earth right now.”

The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) has now extracted about 100 injured children from Gaza since this latest conflict began. Seven of them, including Ahed, have come to the United States.

Most have been sent for treatment in the region – 47 have been moved to Qatar and 15 to the United Arab Emirates. Many are in hospital in Egypt. Lebanon, South Africa and Jordan have all agreed to take patients. Others have gone to Europe. The UK has not accepted any Gazans.

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