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My first war zone

'A demented lottery' and not knowing what the next minute held

By A. Chris Gajilan
CNN

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Chris Gajilan experienced war for the first time last month on assignment for CNN in the Middle East.

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Behind the Scenes
Israel
Lebanon

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Deafening sirens blared as I crouched in the corner of a stairwell in a nondescript apartment building in Haifa, Israel.

The alarms meant we had 20 seconds to one minute to find shelter before a possible Katyusha rocket attack. I looked around the dim corridor to check whether my correspondent and photographer had found shelter with me. They had.

We were packed in with strangers. All I could hear was the sounds of sirens and a woman wailing. Crying, trembling, she held a toddler in her arms. The child looked confused and terrified, a deer in headlights. A young man stood with his arms around both the crying woman and the boy. Had a rocket landed nearby, his attempt at protecting them would have been futile.

First fear

Even though I've covered some of the world's worst disasters, and I had been hearing sirens for hours, looking into that boy's eyes, I felt fear for the first time.

It was not necessarily fear of the rocket hitting or of bodily harm, but fear of simply not knowing where the Katyusha rockets would hit. At that point, taking cover seems like a formality.

Katyushas are infamously inaccurate. They land where they may...crushing sides of buildings, obliterating traffic roundabouts, shredding cars. Upon striking, their warheads explode and thousands of pieces of shrapnel, just the size of ballbearings, spray the air and pierce whatever surrounds them. Even just one of those little pieces of metal, that's less ,material than the copper found in a penny, can rip through your lungs, heart, face, sometimes, killing you instantly. They are cheap and effective at achieving their purpose: destruction and terror.

In an effort to tell stories of people living in war zones, we had become participants in the most demented kind of lottery. If your numbers were up, there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. In fact, when we talked to hospital patients injured and maimed by rocket blasts, none of them could remember the rocket hitting. They could recall no warning signs but the sirens. I was not comforted.

We spent about seven days in the Mideast -- half based in Beirut, Lebanon, and the other half in Haifa, Israel. As members of CNN Medical News, our mandate is a bit different from other reporters'. In this and other assignments, we are able to spend more time talking to patients and doctors who operate under fire, ordinary people who rise to extraordinary conditions. Our job isn't to do the body-count stories of the day; we have the luxury of spending time with people and telling their stories, stories that otherwise wouldn't be told.

Bombed back 20 years

Beirut was seen by many as the plastic surgery capital of the Middle East. The city has a wealthy middle and upper class. The hospitals are modern and clean, rivaling any medical facility in the United States. People from all over the region come to Beirut for medical procedures.

After weeks of bombing, those days might be over. Doctors we met said the destruction set them back 20 years.

We visited two hospitals in Beirut. Mount Lebanon Hospital, close to Hezbollah headquarters, had moved its patients to the underground floors. The coveted rooms with views of the city skyline were empty and abandoned.

The hospital was still operating and most procedures still being performed, but supplies were running out, and some hospital staff were no longer reporting to work. The hospital director understood. He said that they were no longer willing to play Russian roulette on a daily commute.

Sahel Hospital, in southern Beirut, was hard-hit by the airstrikes.

To gain access to the building, our translator contacted local Hezbollah officials. We arrived in the hospital parking lot. Hezbollah members examined our camera equipment, made us shut off our computers and took a look at our mobile phones.

Once satisfied that we did not pose a threat, they let us in. There were windows blown out, debris on the floor, power flickering on and off, holes in the ceiling.

We climbed out to the balcony of one of the wards. Piles of rubble rose from the ground. A bombed-out bridge gaped just a few blocks away. Our Hezbollah escorts were sure to point out every blast site and bit of damage, condemnation of Israel mixed in with their descriptions.

Numb to the sirens

In Israel, we spent much of our time at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. An incredibly modern hospital, it is the largest trauma center in northern Israel. The most serious cases from this war are brought here.

A few minutes after our arrival, we heard our first sirens. We jumped up, alert, and rushed outside under the main entrance canopy, anticipating a hit. Our cameraman rolled the entire time. There was nothing. No rocket. A false alarm.

We did an interview. An alarm sounded. Nothing. We stopped to get coffee in the hospital café. Nothing. By the fourth time the sirens sounded that morning, we hardly even noticed. Everyone else went about his or her business, and so did we. Sirens became no more startling than the ring of a mobile phone.

It's odd how quickly something once so alarming can melt into the background.

It was the fifth siren that jolted us back into reality. We were reporting in the hospital and felt an earth-shaking thud. We ran outside. Smoke was rising about 100 meters away. Ambulances geared up to head out. People scanned the sky, looking for other rockets. We watched the injured as they were rushed into the hospital emergency room -- bloodied, bruised and traumatized.

Two injured teenage girls came in on foot. Their youth struck me. They reminded me of the girls at a mall or in a church youth group.

As the crowd parted, I could see what they were wearing: Not jeans or T-shirts, but Israeli military uniforms. They were soldiers, their hair pulled back in ponytails, slinging rifles and using mobile phones with their uninjured hands.

This was my first war zone. From Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami to Pakistan in the aftershocks of the earthquake to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I have seen the tolls of mother nature and human neglect.

Often in those situations, the hardest-hit people would band together. Aid would come pouring in, and the best of humanity would be showcased.

A war zone is different. In this war, rules are disappearing. Hospitals are caught in the crossfire. Ambulances are hit by rockets. Doctors are operating as shrapnel pierces their buildings.

In war, the best you can do is take cover and simply hope it's not futile.

A. Chris Gajilan is a senior producer for CNN Medical News.

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