Recently I watched a 45-minute Spanish documentary “Born in Gaza” (“Nacido en Gaza”) about the impacts of war on children. Watching the documentary focused my attention to the fact that long after the tanks left, children still feel the stress and anxiety of war. No parent wants to imagine his or her child going through pain, loss or fear, but Gaza’s youngest generation is coping with trauma, having lived through three wars over the last ten years.
In 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014, Gaza was at war with Israel, the highest escalation of violence in the coastal strip since the 1967 war when Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory began. In the last war in 2014, over 2,200 Palestinian civilians were killed including 551 children and more than 3,000 children were injured. Six Israeli civilians were killed and 270 children were injured.
As a mother of a ten-month-old baby, I was having ruminative thoughts about the implications of war on children.
According to a report published by Save the Children earlier this year, researchers found 62 percent of children in Gaza in 2018 reported feelings of depression and 55 percent reported feelings of grief. Over half of the children said they feel nervous and feel fearful when away from their parents. Many have nightmares. Fifty-three percent said they wet their beds. Caregivers and parents were also interviewed and 42 percent said their children temporarily lost the ability to speak as a result of trauma.
Alarmingly, a 2010 study conducted by the World Health Organization and the CDC found that a quarter of teens in Gaza aged 13 to 15 said they had suicidal thoughts and had considered plans to commit suicide in the previous 12 months. Palestinian teens ranked the highest for suicidal thoughts among those surveyed in the Middle East. While the research did not investigate the relationship between war and suicide, the results reflect the deep sense of despair among children in Gaza.
I wanted to interview children to have a closer look at what they remember from the war and how those memories still impact their lives today.
Sharif al-Namla, a toddler amputee
One incident during the 2014 war that Gazans may never forget is the story of the al-Namla family from Rafah city in southern Gaza.
On the morning of August 1, 2014, Israel reportedly invoked the Hannibal directive, an army protocol for responding with force to the capture of a soldier. At the time Israeli forces were searching for Hadar Goldin, a soldier who was reportedly abducted by Hamas. Hadar and more than 121 Palestinians, of whom at least 72 were civilians, were killed in intense fighting that day. It was the single most bloody day during the war, sometimes referred to as “Black Friday.”
Human rights groups later accused Israel of committing war crimes, citing the use of tank shelling, gunfire, and airstrikes on civilians.
That day Wael al-Namla, 27, his wife Asraa, and three-year-old son Sharif were in the processing of evacuating when their house was struck by a missile. The damage killed three relatives in the home and caused Wael and his son to lose a leg, and for Asraa to have both legs amputated. Sharif additionally lost his right eye.
Today, Sharif is 8.
“Sharif doesn’t like to leave the house. He feels ashamed of his injury, he doesn’t talk a lot like his peers and always prefers to stay alone,” his father Wael told me.
Recently Wael convinced his son to join a one-month summer camp in July. The program included 55 children who lost their limbs either because of congenital malformation or injuries.
Wael said that his son needs several surgeries for his right eye, and surgery in preparation for an artificial limb.
Wael said Sharif “became more active after the camp, but it’s not enough. He needs a lot of care and time to engage in the community.”
On August 1, 2014, on the 27th day of the 2014 war between Israel and Gaza, Zidan Qarmout was ten years old and standing by a window of his house eating sweets. The 2014 war was 50 days long and it’s become common to refer to events by what day in the war an incident occurred, rather than by the date alone.
Zidan’s mother Monira, 50, did not allow her children to leave the house during the war, even during hours-long ceasefires when other children went outside to play. She explained this was to protect them from any errant fire in their neighborhood. The family lives in Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza where Israeli forces had carried out a ground invasion.
Three days before, a school functioning as a United Nations shelter in the neighborhood was struck. The neighborhood felt unsafe. Suddenly, a bomb was dropped near Zidan’s house while he was standing near the window. The pressure of the explosion threw Zidan to the ground.
It turned out that the explosive struck a house that belongs to Abu al-Qomsan family. The house was rented by a displaced family from Beit Hanoun, the Wahdan family, who had evacuated their house after 12 members of their family were killed in a different Israeli airstrike. This explosion killed three, including two women, and injured 10, including Zidan.
In total 12,000 houses were destroyed during the 2014 war.
Zidan was slightly wounded by shrapnel that hit his face and shoulders. He was hospitalized that same day and sent home with medication at home. A neighbor, a nurse, helped with wound care at home.
“Five years have passed now but I’ll never forget the flame ball that exploded in front of my eyes. Sometimes, I feel that it’s chasing me while I’m sleeping,” Zidan said in a hesitant voice.
Later he told me, “I’ll be a surgeon or heart transplant doctor when I grow up. I always watch documentaries about doctors and read a lot. I think I can make it.”
That was not Zidan’s first war. When he was eight, specifically in the fall of 2012, at 6 a.m. one day, Zidan and his family woke to plumes of dust and the sound of stones knocking into their newly built house. A neighbor’s home, the Salah family, was struck by three missiles dropped from an F16 plane.
“I was eight years old in the second war, I used to sleep beside my mother every night. At that night, suddenly, my mother pulled me from my hand to leave the room. I didn’t see anything because dust and the smell of gunpowder were filling the place,” Zidan said.
“With difficulty, we were able to find our way out, we started going down the stairs, which were almost destroyed until we reached the ground. I can’t believe I’m still alive until now,” he said.
Zidan is now 15, the youngest among his six siblings. His mother Monira describes him as a “very clever child, he’s always getting the top rank in his class. But he has a nervous personality that increases with each escalation and Israeli violence.”
Yet the most traumatic event Zidan has experienced in his young life occurred outside of wartime. On February 4, 2008, his father was killed in a targeted Israeli airstrike. He was a member of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, which is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel.
“I don’t remember a lot of things that happened between me and dad, I was very young. But I remember him when he used to hold me on his shoulders and I pulled his hair and we would start to laugh after that,” Zidan added
Ahmad Abu Dahrouj and his cousin, baby Jana
Zidan’s story is not unique. Many children in Gaza survived bombings and were forced to flee their homes during wars. In the 2014 war, more than 500,000 Palestinians or roughly one-third of the population were displaced.
In the same Save the Children study, 78 percent of caregivers said their children were scared of sounds of bombing, airplanes, and drones. Sixty percent of both children and parents said they were in a state of “constant insecurity” in anticipation of bombings or a resumption of war.
During the 2014 war Ahmad Abu Dahrouj, aged 10, evacuated his house in western Gaza with his parents and two siblings, sheltering in his grandfather’s house in the middle of Gaza City.
At the start of the war, all of Ahmad’s aunts and their families moved in with his grandfather. Ahmad was very close to his youngest aunt, Susan who was 22 then. She had evacuated from her house in the al-Buraij camp.
What made Ahmad close to his aunt was her baby girl Jana, 1. She was his favorite playmate.
“Wherever I would go, Jana used to follow me. My aunt kept her with me most of the time during our stay at my grandfather’s house. When I left Jana for a few minutes, she used to cry immediately,” Ahmad said.
On July 29, 2014, there was a temporary ceasefire and Susan decided to return to her house in al-Buraij. She took Jana with her.
Later that night Ahmad’s uncle Ramadan, 35, decided to visit his sister Susan to check on her and took Ahmad with him on his motorcycle.
The moment Ahmad and Ramadan arrived, a huge explosion hit the place. “I fell on the ground. I remember that I could only see darkness and stones flying in the air,” Ahmad recalled.
When the dust cleared, Ahmad saw the point of impact was Susan’s house.
Watching from behind the motorcycle, Ahmad saw ambulances arrive and first responders holding Susan. She was alive but injured. Around 30 minutes later rescue workers found Jana lifeless under the rubble.
“I still remember Jana’s burned body,” Ahmad said, “I see her body every time I visit my grandfather’s house. In fact, I hated going there after that incident.”
Ahmad didn’t say much else about that day, but he ensured that what he saw can’t be described in words. He hopes one day to honor Jana’s memory. He trains on a parkour team, it’s an urban acrobatic sport.
“When I become a trainer for this sport, I’ll form a team and call it Jana to immortalize my childhood baby friend,” he said.
Sarah Abu el-Tarabesh, the promising actress and painter
Among the children I interviewed for this article was Sarah, my husband’s sister. She is 13 now. Sarah’s story is a bit different from the other children I interviewed.
Sarah was only 8 in the last war, she was neither injured nor lost a house nor a relative. However, she was cast in a local production, “Innocent Kid’s Diaries,” which aired on television dramatizing a child’s visit to sites bombed during the 2014 war.
Sarah said about this experience, “I didn’t expect that the war can cause all this destruction, I was shocked the first time I visited the destroyed places. After that, every time I knew I had to film a new video, I couldn’t sleep at night imagining the places I’ll see the next day.”
“When the films were released, I didn’t watch them. I didn’t want to see the destruction again. I kept watching only one film that included me distributing flowers,” Sarah added describing a final scene where she gives out flowers as a signal of renewal.
Today, Sarah’s left hand shakes every time she is startled by a loud sound.
“I hate our house during wars and escalations,” she said. The roof, made of asbestos as is common in Gaza, “makes a very loud sound that makes me terrified. I felt that every missile falling down will fall on our house.”
While Sarah is still impacted by the war, however, there is one positive implication. Sarah learned to express her feelings by painting.
“I didn’t expect to be a painter. I always dreamed of being a media correspondent, but it seems that my aspirations changed after I started drawing after the 2014 war,” she said.