RAMALLAH — The distressed caller was on the line from Gaza when an explosion drowned out his voice and the line suddenly went dead.
For counselors at the Sawa 121 (One-to-One) Palestinian helpline in Ramallah, it is a grimly familiar end to calls in times of conflict, most recently during the 11-day hostilities between Israel and Hamas in May.
“You don’t know if they’re still alive or not,” Sawa co-founder Ohaila Shomar told Reuters at her call center office in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.
“This is the most difficult thing. We keep thinking about them and what happened to them.”
Sawa – “Together” in Arabic – fielded around 37,000 calls during the May violence, twice its usual workload, with concerns such as safety, missing children and unexploded bombs added to the helpline’s usual pleas for help with domestic abuse, child protection and mental health problems.
Some callers were seeking shelter during Israeli airstrikes or used Sawa’s free line to pass messages to their family because they had no phone credit, counselors said.
An Egyptian-brokered truce on May 21 ended the fighting which saw 253 Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes and 13 people in Israel killed by Palestinian rockets and missiles, medical officials said.
Jalal Khader, director of Sawa in Ramallah, said that although the fighting has stopped, the real support work is only just beginning after four wars between Israel and Gaza militants since 2008.
“It’s as if the trauma and crises that they went through during the previous wars came back again because they’re living the same crisis that they’ve lived through before,” said Khader.
Relying on funding from humanitarian organizations including Médecins du Monde Switzerland and the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), Sawa will continue to provide emergency post-war support for another six months.
Staff are limited to answering the phones for a maximum of 20 hours a week to prevent counselor burnout, but Sawa official Noor Nazzal said the gratitude of callers made a difficult job worthwhile.
“When we leave and hear the feedback that they give us – how much you gave me relief, how much you reassured me and gave me hope for life, this gives us the motivation to offer something even better and continue with our work,” she said. Sawa website: www.Sawa.ps (Reporting by Zainah El-Haroun and Stephen Farrell in Ramallah, Writing by Zainah El-Haroun; Editing by Mike Collett-White)