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A survivor of the UNICEF aid convoy struck by gunfire in Gaza speaks out

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Biden administration said this week that Israel is doing more to get food, water and medicine to Palestinians who face famine in Gaza. But the Israeli government still needs to do more. After an Israeli airstrike killed seven workers with the World Central Kitchen, this week, UNICEF said that one of its vehicles was struck by gunfire while waiting in a convoy to deliver relief supplies. Tess Ingram was in that car. She's a spokesperson for UNICEF and joins us now from Rafah. Ms. Ingram, thanks so much for being with us.

TESS INGRAM: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What happened? What did you see? What was it like?

INGRAM: Well, we were approaching the Wadi Gaza checkpoint, which is one of the main access routes into the north of Gaza, to deliver these lifesaving supplies, and we were instructed to stop at a holding area. And it was in that place where gunfire broke out in the vicinity. It appeared to be coming from the north, from the direction of the checkpoint, towards civilians, who were just to the east of us and could see the gunfire breaking out, the civilians running. And then all of a sudden, our car was hit in my passenger door and window, two different bullets, and then another one in the hood of the vehicle. So we were lucky that we were inside and safe and that it was an armored car and the window didn't shatter.

SIMON: And recognizing the importance of this answer, do you have any idea of whose gunfire? What happened?

INGRAM: We just know that it came from the direction of the checkpoint towards civilians, and there didn't seem to be any fire returned.

SIMON: Can you help us appreciate how difficult it is to get aid to Palestinians who need it most right now?

INGRAM: It's incredibly difficult. It's difficult because of these dangers. It's difficult because of the interruptions in telecommunications, the damage to roads, the lack of trucks we have access to inside the strip. It takes days, sometimes weeks, to get convoys into Gaza, and that shouldn't be happening. When I drove in, there were hundreds of trucks backlogged, lined up, sitting on the tarmac in Egypt, waiting to come in, when we know that inside Gaza, children are deprived of the basic essentials that they need to survive.

SIMON: Well, when you say the trucks are backed up, why? Checkpoints?

INGRAM: So the screening points at the crossing to enter the Gaza Strip - there's two of them. The processes at those screening points are very slow and complex and opaque. We don't know what happens to the aid, often, once it's inside. And sometimes, boxes get sent back without any explanation. None of this is easy, and we really need those two fixers to go hand in hand, more aid and better distribution conditions.

SIMON: I think some of us who have covered previous conflicts, and, in fact, aid workers from UNICEF and Medecins Sans Frontieres and other groups have been a little surprised to see aid workers wearing body armor. Has that become common?

INGRAM: It has become common. Whenever we're going into an area where we know that there are active military operations, we wear our vests and our hats, and that's our security protocol at the moment.

SIMON: I wonder if any of your colleagues who have been in other places around the world have told you how Gaza compares to what they've contended with elsewhere?

INGRAM: Yeah. They've said that it's some of the most difficult operating conditions they've ever experienced. It's some of the most horrific trauma that they've seen, both physical and mental, in the civilians that we're trying to serve. I think by many measures, it compares to some of the darkest moments of their careers. But, you know, I'm here for a period. The Palestinians who live here are experiencing this trauma day in and day out, particularly the children, and that's going to have long-term impacts on their mental health.

SIMON: Head of the of the U.S. Agency for International Development Samantha Power says that it's credible - her word - that parts of Gaza are already experiencing famine. Is that your assessment as well?

INGRAM: It's certainly possible, but I can tell you that I've met children and their families who've recently come down from the north of Gaza. And for example, one boy, Omar (ph), 7 - I met him in the middle area 48 hours after he'd made the crossing south, and he was so malnourished, so sick, in such pain. And his grandmother said that they'd mainly been surviving on grass.

SIMON: On grass.

INGRAM: On grass. Yeah. She said they had access to the odd can of tinned food, but very rarely.

SIMON: Tess Ingram is a spokesperson for UNICEF in Rafah. Thank you so much for being with us.

INGRAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.