Hundreds of ‘terrified’ animals in war-torn Gaza scour for food between airstrikes
'Everybody - human and animal - feels like the bomb will drop on their heads.'
In less than a month, Israeli forces have killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza and injured more than 25,000 others, according to Gazan health officials.
Amid scenes of people mourning among the piles of rubble and patients lining hospital corridors, dogs also roam the dirt roads looking for their owners.
After the attack by Hamas, the armed group which governs the coastal enclave, Israel has been besieging and bombarding Gaza, igniting a humanitarian crisis.
Sulala Animal Rescue (SAR) is a non-profit which saves, feeds and provides medical attention to stray animals in the Gaza Strip.
Annelies Keuleers, who volunteers for the animal welfare group remotely from Belgium, says she has lost contact with Saeed al-Err, the 50-year-old founder of SAR, multiple times as the enclave’s internet services have been cut off.
But what they have managed to tell her between the blackouts has been harrowing, she tells Metro.co.uk.
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‘The situation in Gaza is very difficult because there is bombing everywhere and nowhere is safe,’ Annelies explains.
‘Once Saeedsent me a video of him feeding the cats and in the background, you can hear the explosions. This terrified me.
‘I said that if I were in his place, I’d die of fear feeling like the bomb would drop on my head.’
‘He told me: “We feel like this but 3 times worse, and it increases. The feeling that a bomb will fall on our head or is falling next to us… All of Gaza has reached this mental state.”‘
In a recent WhatsApp message to her, Saaed told Annelies this includes animals too. ‘Everybody – human and animal – feels like the bomb will drop on their heads,’ he messaged.
In the first few days of its retaliatory strike against Hamas, the Israeli Air Force dropped more than 6,000 bombs on the Gaza Strip.
‘Like humans, animals are terrified of the bombs. Dogs recognise the sound of warplanes, especially before the bomb drops – the noise the plane makes changes,’ Annelies adds.
Many of the stray animals and once beloved pets hide when the bombardments begin, only emerging when it stops for a ‘few minutes’ which gives Saeed a window to feed them.
‘Often they are shaking with fear,’ says Annelies.
About 350 dogs call Saeed’s shelter in Gaza City home, while another in the city houses about 40 cats. The father-of-eight cares for about 30 cats in his own home.
In one Facebook post, Saeed described displaced civilians sheltering in hospitals with their cats. SAR gave one nurse at al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical complex, food for the starving animals.
Hundreds of donkeys live in Gaza too – about 900 are used by sanitation officials for waste collection, according to health officials. The SAR team also work to give horses and donkeys carrying refugees evacuated from the north water.
For the last 16 years, more than two million people in Gaza have been trapped by a blockade that limits what supplies can come in and who can come out.
But after the hostilities began, Israel tightened the border, preventing food, fuel and water, among other basic essentials, from flowing into the strip – including pet food.
‘When food runs out for humans, it will also run out for animals,’ Annelies says.
UN officials say Gaza is inching by the minute towards this eventuality. The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned it expects shop shelves to go bare this week, as Gazans going hungry will add the death toll.
The Hamas-run Gaza Interior Ministry recently announced that all bakeries in the territory have shut down, owing to a lack of fuel. The only mill in the strip has the same problem.
Fuel running dry is hampering animal rescue efforts too, adds Annelies, as teams need to use cars to get to northern Gaza where help is needed.
‘The moment there is a ceasefire we will go there and cover different areas to pick up the wounded animal,’ she explains.
Annelies helps with media relations for SAR but admits she struggles to ask Saeed how he is holding up, all too wary of the toll the animal rescue effort and the warfare are taking on him.
Most days, he’s silent. It’s then that she knows the grief and the fury is too much.
‘I just worry from afar and wait until he feels he has the mental capacity to tell me what is happening,’ she says.
‘Until then it is enough to know he is alive.’
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