Bombs at breakfast: Capturing life in the Gaza war zone

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Children in Gaza at one of the UN schools that was bombed by the Israelis.
BROTHERS IN ARMS: Children in Gaza at one of the UN schools that was bombed by the Israelis. Photos: Aaron Hollett - ABC News

AARON Hollett started his career chasing ambulances as a QT photographer in Ipswich.

Now he is doing the same kind of thing as an ABC cameraman, only the ambulances are taking wounded Palestinians to the overflowing hospitals in Gaza after military strikes launched by Israel.

The 37-year-old Hollett, who spent a week in Gaza at the start of the conflict, spoke to the QT this week from Jerusalem about what has been both a dangerous and harrowing assignment.

The conflict has seen more than 1350 Palestinians die, many of them children.

As of Thursday, 56 Israeli soldiers had died and three civilians. Yesterday a 72-hour ceasefire was agreed to by Hamas and Israel.

But in one 48-hour period at the height of the conflict, the United Nations reported that one Gazan child was being killed every hour.

Hollett has seen firsthand the carnage caused in Gaza by sophisticated Israeli weaponry, and injuries suffered by children are the worst of it.

"Before they (the Israeli Defence Force) hit people's houses, they ring them and say, 'You've got five minutes to get out' … and then 10 minutes later the ambulances come flying into the hospital," he says.


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"People bring the injured in their own cars because there aren't enough ambulances.

"At the hospital there are lots of people injured, but the children are the worst you see … with busted limbs, shrapnel wounds and faces half smashed in.

"A lot of them get hit by shrapnel. When you are on the ground after an air strike, you can see all the shards and pieces of metal that obviously go through people. That is what kills most of them."

Hollett saw "much road trauma at traffic crashes" at the QT and has filmed scenes in Gaza that most of us cannot imagine.

"But working at the QT prepared me for those things," he says.

He has a job to do in Gaza, but he is also a flesh and blood human being.

"When I am filming I concentrate on what I am doing … but I still have feelings," he says.

"It is not until later when you get to think about it more, when you are watching it over."

Hollett is received well in the hospitals by the victims' families, and with good reason.

GAZA ROCKED: An Israeli missile explodes during the height of the conflict. Photo: Aaron Hollett - ABC News
GAZA ROCKED: An Israeli missile explodes during the height of the conflict. Photo: Aaron Hollett - ABC News Contributed

"The Palestinians are amazingly gracious people," he says.

"They always say, 'Come and talk to us. Come and film us, because we want to show the world what is happening to us'."

That is what happened after an Israeli strike on a Gaza beach killed four Palestinian children from the Bakr family who were playing hide and seek. The children were all first cousins between the ages of nine and 11.

Hollett went with ABC's senior Middle East correspondent Matt Brown to the family home of the victims a few days later and shot a story for The 7.30 Report.

Young Muntaser Bakr was injured in the attack but he lost his brother Zacaria and three relatives.

In the story Brown spoke to Muntaser and his father Aahed, who showed the ABC crew the grave where the boys had been buried.

"That was a humbling experience," Hollett says.

"The mum was inconsolable. The son … had a broken arm and stitches all over him. He had seen his mates die.

"The boy was crying really quietly and talking about the mates he'd lost.

"But then he started talking about how (the resistance) should never give up."

In the ABC report, Muntaser said: "I say to the resistance, 'Don't be afraid, don't give up. Don't do anything before taking revenge for my brother or my nephew and my two other cousins and take revenge for the whole country. And take revenge for the world and all sad people with no home'."

Israel has said that they were targeting Hamas militants in the attack, but the long-term repercussions of the strike on Muntaser when he gets older can only be imagined.

"These kids are militarised from a young age and it is just breeding a whole generation of kids who hate Israel," Hollett says.

Hollett initially went to Gaza with Brown for a week. Just getting across the border has its perils with the duo having to make their way through a caged walkway with artillery fire going off all around them.

"Even before we went through customs to go into Gaza, we heard a few gun shots and were told by this Israeli guy to get into a room," he says.

"We went through immigration and you have to walk about 500m through this metal cage in a sort of no man's land.

AFTERMATH: Palestinians inspect the rubble after buildings are left in ruins by an Israeli missile. Photo: Aaron Hollett - ABC News
AFTERMATH: Palestinians inspect the rubble after buildings are left in ruins by an Israeli missile. Photo: Aaron Hollett - ABC News Aaron Hollett

"Before we went out to do the walk in the cage, there were tanks firing off… and a lot of artillery fire.

"We put our flak jackets and helmets on and, when there was a lull, we did that walk. You are a sitting duck. If some idiot wanted to pop you off, they could pretty easily."

Safely on the other side, Hollett was welcomed by a local driver and a 'fixer' who escorted the ABC duo to their hotel in Gaza City by the beach in a vehicle modified for war zones.

"We get picked up in an ABC truck, which is a big, old armoured, bulletproof Landrover. It weighs a couple of tonnes," he says.

"We have got a driver and a fixer, a guy who is a local and translator.

"He listens to the radio and says, 'They are likely to blow a house up there' … so we head that way.

"But we always stay one or two kilometres away from the house they are going to blow up, just to be safe.

"These guys have been on Ramadan as well. It gets quite hot in the car, but they can't drink water during the day and they are working their arses off.

"At night, houses all around their homes are being bombed. Their families and kids are terrified.

"To be honest, they are just as important as the journalist and cameraman. They know the area and they know what is safe."

Each morning and afternoon Hollett and Brown go out to secure stories that are shown on ABC TV News, The 7.30 Report or Lateline.

The ABC employees take all the precautions they can and keep their bosses fully informed of the unfolding situation.

While the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is well aware of the presence of international journalists in the hotel, either side of the building has taken a pounding from air strikes.

"One morning we woke up and there were really close air strikes and artillery fire. It shakes you out of bed," Hollett says.

"I got some shots of that out the window, but it was pretty close.

"We have told the Australian ambassador to Israel what our co-ordinates are. Word back from the IDF is that they know there are journalists there, but they can't guarantee their safety."

FIGHT: Gaza takes a pounding during an evening of Israeli strikes. Photo: Aaron Hollett - ABC News.
FIGHT: Gaza takes a pounding during an evening of Israeli strikes. Photo: Aaron Hollett - ABC News. Contributed

The regular ABC cameraman from the Middle East was on holidays so Hollett was seconded from his current role as cameraman/editor in New Delhi to fill in.

"But this is the first time I have done this sort of stuff," he says.

"I am sure I will become seasoned, but it is pretty scary. I don't think I am bulletproof and I don't want to get killed. I am not a cowboy."

Hollett has also seen in action Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system that can protect its citizens from rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas.

"You can hear a Hamas rocket firing off and it sounds like an F1-11 going past at full pelt," he says.

"Then you see the Iron Dome rockets go up and they move around like a heat-seeker and hit the rockets that are shot from Gaza."

With artillery fire and air strikes always close by in Gaza, Hollett has a profession fraught with danger.

It is a long way from his days attending Ipswich Central State School and Ipswich Grammar.

His father Barry, who still lives in Ipswich, was the finance manager of the QT and young Aaron left school to join the newspaper.

"I got a job rolling papers at the QT. I did that, and delivering papers for a year or so, and then started taking social photos and sport photos on the weekend. Then I did a cadetship at the QT," he says.

"That is where I learned how to sniff a story out and about news judgment."

Hollett had a five-year stint at the QT in the late 1990s.

He worked in London for a year, returned to Queensland and studied criminology at university and then worked as a cameraman for Channel Nine and Seven in a variety of locations in Australia.

He then covered politics in the Canberra press gallery for five years.

Hollett always wanted to get a gig at the ABC in Melbourne and finally achieved his goal in 2011.

After covering the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, he was successful in gaining a posting to New Delhi in 2013.

He has covered Nelson Mandela's funeral, been to Pakistan for Foreign Correspondent where he filmed elections and was embedded with Australian soldiers in Afghanistan at Tarin Kowt.

"My grade five teacher told me I was a busybody who always wanted to know other people's business. Now I get paid to do it," he says.

"I have been able to shoot things that I never thought I would be able to as a foreign correspondent.

"My mum once said to me, 'You might be shooting for Four Corners one day'.

"I just rubbished her and said that is only for the best cameramen. But now I have been able to do that."

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