REGIDOR Esguerra is not the typical OFW Filipino nurse. The General Santos native sports long hair, tied at the back, with a moustache and goatee. But his rugged looks humbly mask the heroic feat he pulled through from hell, the Gaza Strip.
Esguerra can be considered a “veteran” of the Gaza war. He has been assigned five times to the enclave by his international humanitarian medical group, Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders (MSF), since 2018.
“I was on my sixth mission to Gaza. I arrived in Gaza on October 2, and then October 7 happened,” he said, referring to the surprise Hamas infiltration inside southern Israel where 1,200 people were killed.
In the previous Gaza conflicts, exchange of rockets and gunfire between Hamas and Israel would last for only 48 hours. He explained that MSF has provided foreign workers like him with “safe rooms” where they can take shelter whenever there are siren calls, warning of missile strikes.
But the Israel bombings were relentless, and he realized that war would drag on when the Israelis bombarded a building next to theirs on the fourth day of the campaign.
“An airstrike hit a building less than 500 meters away from us. We could feel our houses shake,” the Filipino nurse recalled.
Evacuating MSF staff out of Gaza
IF there are conflicts, wars or disasters, there are surely volunteers from MSF. The group was initially founded in Paris—thus the French name—and is now based in Geneva. In 1999, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their pioneering humanitarian work to millions of people in more than 70 countries.
Filipinos are familiar with MSF as their volunteer doctors and nurses set up makeshift hospitals and treated survivors of Supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013. They were also one of the international aid agencies who came to help hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Philippine Armed Forces campaign against the ISIS-inspired Maute group in Marawi City.
It is no wonder, MSF is likewise present in Gaza as well as in other occupied Palestine territories like the West Bank. Since 1989, its foreign and Palestinian staff have provided surgery, occupational therapy, psychosocial support and health education to millions of people there who are victims of the 16-year conflict.
Aside from being an emergency nurse, Esguerra played a more critical role in the MSF as a medical coordinator. He recruited most of the MSF Palestinians. To avoid duplication of assistance, he also had to coordinate with partners such as Gaza’s Ministry of Health, so-called “interlocutors” or the network of international different organizations.
Esguerra said when the missile struck a building near the MSF headquarters, they had to evacuate and move to somewhere safer. At first, they thought of the basement of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) compound also in Gaza City, but then later, they were told to move to three different locations towards the southern tip of Gaza.
While MSF staff had moved from one place to another for safety, they needed to find ways to survive and continue helping injured Palestinians, especially children.
The MSF estimates there were 10,000 people wounded, 4,000 of them children. The hospital bed capacity in the enclave is only 3,500. Doctors had to stitch the wounds, operate on or sometimes cut the limbs of injured children without anesthesia.
AND then the worst happened.
Israeli Defense Forces advised the MSF that they will be striking a Hamas target less than 100 meters away from their position.
“We were given a warning in advance that it will be hit. And there’s no opportunity already for us to move to another location. For an hour, it was an intense moment for us to wait for the Israeli air force to hit their target. And when it happens, it happens. It is difficult to describe the effect of bombardment kapag malapitan po [when it’s just nearby],” he said.
Family members of the MSF Palestinian staff and volunteers also become victims of violence, i.e., their houses getting razed or family members killed. Despite this, their Palestinian staff remained faithful to their service to them, the foreign workers—delivering their food and making sure they are safe.
The MSF headquarters in Geneva subsequently decided it was time to evacuate their foreign workers out of Gaza.
Esguerra was then given a new assignment—the team leader in charge of security for foreign workers of MSF.
“It was a big responsibility that was given to me. I was given a responsibility to be the evacuation team leader for 22 international medical staff of Doctors Without Borders. Ako rin po ang [I was also] responsible for the security of our team. Every time there is a movement, bombings close to our areas, I have to report to our task force based in Jerusalem,” Esguerra said.
One of the MSF foreign workers is a kababayan, Darwin dela Cruz Diaz. The MSF said dela Cruz Diaz is still recuperating from the trauma, and declined to allow BusinessMirror to interview him.
Aside from the 22 MSF foreign workers, Esguerra was also given the task to take care of the evacuation of 13 other foreign workers from other international organizations.
“It was quite an intense moment because I have to take care of my team not only physically but also mentally,” he said.
On November 1, under his leadership, Esguerra was able to extricate himself, dela Cruz Diaz and 33 other international workers out of Gaza. They were the first batch allowed by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities to leave the enclave.
Relieved, President Marcos Jr. announced the escape from hell of the two MSF workers.
Esguerra is now in the Philippines, and was given six weeks to rest, and possibly recuperate from the mental trauma caused by the war. He still thought of the war, the Palestinian people they worked with and met, the cries for help and the gargantuan humanitarian crisis they left behind.
Asked if he would return to Gaza given another chance, he replied, “Yes.”