January 11, 2009 / 11:35 AM / in 9 years

WITNESS: Two weeks under fire in Gaza

<p>Reuters correspondent in Gaza Nidal al-Mughrabi talks to his colleagues in Gaza November 30, 2007. Al-Mughrabi, 36, has been the Reuters correspondent in his native Gaza Strip for the past 13 years.Ismail Zaydah</p>

GAZA (Reuters) - Voices get loud and excited over the radio Reuters news crews use in Gaza to call in the latest information. Some people complain there are no "Western reporters" inside. But we all work here for Reuters.

After two full weeks of bombardment we are all worried about our families but we work and work the story. We hope it will stop.

"They bombed a car in Beit Lahiyah," says one colleague working in northern Gaza. "Three dead arrived in Shifa hospital," says another in Gaza's largest hospital. "Several people injured when Israeli planes bombed the tunnels," says a third from southern Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt.

I field these calls in our office where we have duct tape crosses on every window to limit flying glass if a strike is too close. Still, the largest window in the hall was blown out.

We have a fixed camera on our high-rise building but our cameramen avoid pointing their cameras from the windows, in case they are mistaken for weapons.

Such mistakes were given as the reason a U.S. tank blasted our Baghdad bureau in 2003, killing and wounding colleagues, and for an Israeli tank killing our colleague here in Gaza, Fadel Shana, nine months ago.

The camera can show the blue Mediterranean sea a few blocks to the west, or point the other way to where Israeli ground forces are closing in, perhaps little more than a kilometer away. At night it used to show bright lights and traffic.

Now it is empty streets and a few cold electric lights. Nothing much moves after dark these days. And we choose, for safety reasons, not to stay in the office overnight. We look after our families and keep in touch with work by phone.

We all get to the office around 9 a.m -- typically about 10 of us, with another dozen working in other parts of the Strip. The strikes have usually been going on for a few hours by then. We call information into Jerusalem where colleagues have been updating our main report around the clock. The updates go on all day long.

I often have no time to write up stories myself. It all moves so fast.

Inside Gaza, we use text messages to communicate. We have to monitor local television and radio stations because they are often first with developments that we race to check. Those checks are essential: a mix of confusion and propaganda accompanies any war, so cross-checking to ensure readers understand at least the sources of information is a safeguard.

EVERY DAY A NEW LIFE

Every day is a new life written for me and for my family, and for the team. Hardly any place in the whole Strip has been spared shelling and air strikes. The heart of the city of Gaza has been hit several times.

Some areas seem to have been hit simply because a Hamas policeman walked nearby, or some militants were detected at a street corner by the Israeli forces. The high-explosive attack that follows can be devastating, taking out not only targeted people but a house or some passers-by.

The movement of our crews is restricted to hospitals and major strikes at places that are important, or where we think there may have been a high death toll. It is simply too dangerous to do otherwise. We cannot be with Hamas leaders or fighters, that would be too great a risk.

"Please take care. Do not enter a place right after it is bombed. Wait a bit, it may be hit again," I say to our crews 30 times a day.

We urge each other to avoid main roads outside the city, and to look carefully where we drive. "Try not to pass a police station even if it was already bombed. Do not go by a money exchange shop, or a house of a Hamas leader. Do not pass by a place the Israeli army has threatened to bomb. Avoid passing close to a mosque."

It's a list I repeat mentally as I drive back and forth.

"COLLATERAL DAMAGE"

Inside the office we have breakfast together, lunch too sometimes, and we send meals to people on outside missions. At one stage we did not see our outside crews for almost five days. When they returned to the office there was a big welcome scene.

We hugged one another and thanked God we were safe, that all of us were safe.

Four journalists have been killed since the offensive began. One worked for Algerian and Moroccan television, another two for local Gaza broadcasters. The fourth was the special presidential cameraman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

When the main security complex was hit, 200 meters from our office, a piece of shrapnel penetrated one of our walls and made a hole. Part of the ceiling broke but everybody was safe. Many times we have ducked under the tables when huge blasts from air strikes shook the office. We also hear the whistle of rockets fired at Israel from inside the city.

Our families are our main concern.

I live in the south west side of Gaza City, not far from the sea, and the sounds of explosions in the district in the street have never ceased for 15 days of war. We've had almost no electricity for 10 days. For safety, my wife, daughter and son have squeezed all day into our little hallway, listening to the news on a transistor radio.

When one goes to the toilet, they all go together. One goes into the bathroom, the rest wait just outside.

For 15 days we have been sleeping in the same room, which we thought was away from the street and would be safe. But the whole building shook with every explosion and my wife had to leave our bed and hug the kids, sleeping on mattresses.

My kids cover their ears a lot of the time when explosions start. My daily lectures about safety -- that we are far from what is happening -- seem pretty useless.

Now, on Sunday, the 16th day of the war, we have decided to move. Three days ago, a missile hit a neighboring building, killing three people I know -- a fellow journalist, his wife and her mother. By Saturday night, Israeli tanks were closing in on our outlying district of apartment blocks. This morning we all went downstairs and saw a handful of guerrilla fighters.

We were clearly in a battle zone, and so my family have now moved to be with relatives in an area nearer the center, more crowded and so, we hope, safer. Though nowhere feels safe.

We have to leave the office before too late at night because the streets are empty and scary. Restaurants are closed. In daytime, the bakeries are crowded. One baker helped out with a special delivery, grateful for the work.

Our colleagues in Jerusalem are far away but they have some visual contact through a live television monitor, so they can see the smoke, dust and flames. They can get some of the atmosphere.

It is hard to get accurate statistics from independent parties on how many fighters have died. Hamas spokesmen do not answer that question. Our cameramen rarely cover funerals of gunmen of Hamas, it is too dangerous.

The Israeli army says it has killed "hundreds" of fighters. From the tolls we are compiling from the hospitals, hundreds of civilians have also died.

On Friday January 9, an air strike hit a TV production and transmission facility about 100 meters from our office. At least one person was hurt and there was considerable damage. It was used by several Arab TV stations and Iran's Press TV.

The Israeli army said the building was not a target but may have sustained "collateral damage" - and they assured us they have the coordinates of the Reuters bureau and that we are not a target. It is worrying nonetheless.

We pray this will stop soon.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Sara Ledwith

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