Eyad Sarraj obituary
My friend and mentor Eyad Sarraj, who has died aged 69 after suffering from multiple myeloma, was not only Gaza’s first and most distinguished psychiatrist, but also a tireless chronicler of pain and resilience in that tiny, crowded territory under occupation and Israeli firepower.
Eyad was born in Palestine under the British mandate, in Bir al-Saba, which became Beersheva after the establishment of Israel. He arrived with his family in Gaza as refugees in 1948. His father and brother were arrested and imprisoned when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967. Eyad left to study and graduated from Alexandria University in Egypt and the Institute of Psychiatry in London.
Returning to Gaza, he lived through the violence of the Israeli military against the youthful defiance of the first intifada in 1988, which left a new generation traumatised. He became Palestine’s pioneer in the field of mental health research and treatment, and was responsible for cutting through society’s attitudes of stigma and denial to produce effective interventions.
In 1990, he founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Programmeand built a team of 40 specialists, many of them with the experience of Israeli prisons’ torture and forced collaborations. Every suffering family’s door was open to the GCMHP, which became a key part of Gaza’s ability to function against all the odds.
The work of the GCMHP was supported by specialist agencies around the world that recognised the centrality of Eyad’s insights into Gaza’s battered and pressured society, not only for Palestine but also in other societies in long-term violent crisis. The triple focus of the work was on the special needs of Gaza’s children, women and male victims of violence and torture in Israel’s prisons.
A prolific writer on the human cost of the occupation of Palestine, for decades Eyad was in demand as a powerful speaker in Europe and the US, well beyond the medical world where he first made his reputation.
Eyad was brave enough to speak out against the torture and violations of human rights by the Palestinian Authority. He paid for it in 1995, when he was arrested by the PA and given the very treatment he had spoken out about. Two more arrests and beatings followed. He later treated the men who had beaten him – they were former prisoners in Israeli jails.
Politicians of all kinds both feared his independent mind, and consulted him. For the Palestinian election in 2006, he headed the Wa’ad (National Coalition for Justice and Democracy) list of candidates, though no independent party stood a chance of being as politically influential as Eyad himself often was privately.
He was a father figure in Gaza – foreign delegations always wanted to call on him, friends phoned him from around the world to get Gaza’s news, especially when it was bad. The texture of his life was in the assassinations, bombed homes, arrested fathers, attempted suicide bombings, and their consequences of trauma and dysfunction in GCMHP’s everyday work. His private strength was buttressed with quiet early-morning walks on the beach, where he was greeted by fishermen and children going to school, and with evening talks with friends in his book-lined home.
From 2002 the occasional sharing of these walks and times with Eyad in Gaza, or in London, always meant new understanding and a renewal of optimism that against all odds Gaza’s exceptional people could transform the grimmest of times.
Eyad received many honours including, in 1997, the Physicians for Human Rights award, and, in 1998, the Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders. In 2010, he won the Olof Palme prize for his self-sacrificing struggle for the Palestinian people. He was a key witness to the Goldstone report on Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09.
He is survived by his wife, Nirmeen, and their son, Ali, and by his sons Wassem and Sayf, from his first marriage, to Alicia.