Writer and editor

The day Israel shot me

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

Photographer Mohammed Othman's story as told to Anealla Safdar

It was May 15 and the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba. There was a demonstration heading towards the Erez checkpoint, which is between the Gaza strip and Israel. I’m a freelance photojournalist and I was covering it for a London-based news agency and AFP.

At 9 am, my wife Eman told me she had a dream, in which there a war in Gaza. She said I was there and got injured, but survived. She begged me not to go.

I was among the press corps. My colleagues from Reuters, AP and the big networks like Al Jazeera were there. At the beginning, Israeli soldiers used something with a lot of smoke to try and break up the demonstration. After 10 minutes, they started shooting the concrete to scare and hit the protestors, who threw stones in retaliation, with fragments.

The injuries increased and it soon became difficult to do our job as journalists.

The final photograph which cost his mobility

The demonstration had started at 12.30 pm. By 1.30 pm, I was hit.

I managed to take a lot of photographs of injured people. It was bloody and got worse after live ammunition was used. At least 100 people were injured.

I had two cameras with different lenses. One was a Canon Mark II and I had a long zoom lens, 7400 millimeters. When I had enough photographs, I started wrapping up but I wanted to take a final one. I saw a soldier in a tower, he was a sniper. I couldn’t see him clearly, only the gun sticking out of the building. I tried to get an artistic shot to include the protestors throwing stones and the gun pointing at them in one frame.

The tower was 300 metres away and the lens I was using was good for a distance of 400. At the moment I was about to click, I realised that the soldier’s gun was pointing at me. A shot hit my left wrist, which was busy trying to focus my camera. The bullet went in the side of my chest and exploded inside of me.

Later, I was told that it exploded into 20 pieces. It wasn’t like someone is hitting me with a bar. It was different. It felt like an electric shock, a huge electric shock. It broke two discs and pushed my spinal cord. This is what is causing the main issue now, my inability to walk.

I fell down on the concrete immediately and on the way, which felt like slow motion, I was thinking about my wife who was pregnant with our first child. All I could see was a bright light. There was a big hole in my hand, with blood pouring out. I kept thinking about my equipment. The cameras broke with the impact.

Journalists around me rushed with a cloth to wrap my hand and carried me 400 metres to the closest ambulance, shouting ‘journalist! journalist!’ I heard them but couldn’t speak because my lungs were damaged.

I was covered in my own blood so they assumed I was dying. They asked me to recite the Shahada, a prayer usually said before death. I couldn’t move. I was losing consciousness. A couple of minutes passed and they began chanting that I was a martyr. The Al Jazeera Arabic field reporter said, on air, that I had been killed. Two hours later the news was corrected to update viewers on my critical condition.

‘I had always expected something like this to happen’

I later learnt that the other journalists left the demonstration after I was hit. Only one other was slightly wounded. They evacuated because they felt like they were being targetted.

At the hospital, the group of journalists filled the hospital in solidarity in a state of shock. There was so much confusion about my condition and the atmosphere was intense.

I appreciate my colleagues who have expressed their solidarity, support, empathy and condemnation of how I was targetted. Many rights groups have supported me, producing press releases condemning this act of violence. The Israeli army refused to comment at the time, and said they would make a statement. They never did. Obviously, they realised they can’t justify it.

I had always expected something like this to happen, not only me but to everyone who works in the field. Journalists expect injury, being shot or killed. I’ve witnessed a colleague being shot in front of me before. This is the situation in Gaza.

In the emergency room, the doctors realised the treatment I needed was unavailable in that hospital. The closest place it was available was in Israeli hospitals, and it was difficult to transfer me to the Israeli side in the middle of the warzone. They started operating and worked until 4 am, the time they managed to take the biggest fragment out of my body.

I was unconscious for two days, but I heard the doctor saying a fragment might cause me to be paralysed. I was traumatised.

Dreams of walking and working again

My wife, a journalist at a local paper, was at work when it happened. She had been checking the news and noticed a journalist had been shot. She had a strong feeling, laced with fear, that it was me. Her colleagues tried to reassure her that she didn’t have any facts yet. She called my mobile, there was no answer. After some time, my number became unavailable. A friend of mine approached her and asked her if she knew. She said no, so he lied to her and said I had just been hit with a rubber bullet, to stop her worrying.

When she came to the hospital, she was prevented to come in my room. She forced her way in and cried even more.

I’ve been moved to Ankara in Turkey now, where my situation has improved. I’m getting treatment but it’s not enough. Doctors from Jordan and Turkey have said the best treatment is in Germany. Without it, there is a risk of my condition deteriorating.

I really feel that I want to go and work for several reasons, including for my son Karim who I haven’t seen except in photographs, and for my wife. I also want to be able to do what I love to do.

Published on the Doha Centre for Media Freedom website on 24th October, 2011