Gaza, where newborns are orphaned or killed before their first breath
There's a common Palestinian phrase that goes "For each baby, there's a shoulder to find rest."
However, as Israel intensifies its collective punishment against Gaza, this saying finds itself shattered amidst the ravages of war. Israeli airstrikes have robbed countless mothers of giving solace to their infants.
Some mothers were expecting, but they weren't expecting death. If they survive, their babies are born through emergency C-sections, their first moments marked by loss instead of love.
"Gaza Strip is home to 540,000 women of reproductive age, with 50,000 pregnant mothers navigating the perils of childbirth amidst war; 5,500 of them are expected to give birth this November"
Six premature babies died at Al-Shifa Hospital on Monday, after Israel "stopped fuel from reaching the hospital," while the lives of 36 other babies are still hanging in balance.
Each day, a more devastating narrative unfolds from Gaza. Amid relentless Israeli airstrikes, newborns are orphans before their first breath, their fragile lives marked by tragedy from the moment they enter the world.
One haunting incident, captured by cameras, epitomises the horrific reality faced by Gazan families. At Shuhada'a Al-Aqsa Hospital, doctors performed an emergency C-section on a pregnant woman killed by an Israeli airstrike in a desperate attempt to save her unborn child.
Despite their efforts, the baby's life flickered out mere hours after birth, a symbol of the heartbreak that presently defines existence in Gaza.
For one Palestinian couple who preferred to remain anonymous, the anticipation of welcoming their third child is now tainted by the grim realities of war.
Their home was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, forcing them to seek refuge with friends. Amid the rubble, all their preparation for welcoming another child into the world lay forgotten, replaced by a gnawing uncertainty about the future.
Now fear pervades every moment of their existence. The father, voice trembling, reveals the constant dread that shadows their lives. His brother was killed in a previous airstrike.
Naturally, he is now haunted by a similar fate. "What if my baby is born an orphan, like the newborns who entered the world without family," he wonders, his anguish palpable.
In the darkness of night, the 29-week pregnant mother lies awake, her anxiety overwhelming. Every kick and flutter from her unborn child offers a glimmer of hope amidst the despair.
Yet, the fear of the unknown lingers, exacerbated by the knowledge that hospitals struggle with shortages due to the blockade imposed by the Israeli occupation. The very essence of safety has become a distant memory, replaced by an unrelenting fear that the next airstrike might shatter their lives.
Gaza Strip is home to 540,000 women of reproductive age, with 50,000 pregnant mothers navigating the perils of childbirth amidst war; 5500 of them are expected to give birth this November.
The Israeli airstrikes show no mercy, targeting even the sanctuaries of schools and hospitals where families seek refuge. Necessities such as clean water, healthcare, and food have become luxuries, exacerbating the crisis faced by these vulnerable mothers and their newborns.
In this harrowing reality, Gazan babies are born into a world where safety is a luxury, and the promise of a better tomorrow is overshadowed by the horrors of today.
Their cries echo the resilience of a people trapped in an unending cycle of suffering, a stark reminder of the urgent need for peace and humanitarian intervention in the blocked enclave.
Birth amid chaos
In the heart of the Gaza Strip, where darkness falls not only in the absence of light but also in the silence of severed communication networks, stories of resilience and maternal strength emerge amidst the chaos of war.
One such tale is that of Sarah Mortaja, a 29-year-old woman whose journey to motherhood unfolded amid bombings, uncertainty, and the loss of intimate spaces.
As night enveloped the city and airstrikes intensified, Sarah felt the onset of labour pains, a moment that should have been filled with anticipation and joy. Instead, it became a desperate race against time.
With roads blacked out and the fear of being targeted hanging heavy in the air, Sarah's husband, Izz Al Deen Al Akhras, embarked on a perilous journey to find an ambulance.
Their destination: Al Sahabah Hospital, a beacon of hope amidst the turmoil, staffed by only one medical professional and midwife, tasked with managing the birthing process for the entire case.
"The heartbreaking situation in Gaza highlights the urgent need for international attention and humanitarian aid, especially for the mothers. Despite unimaginable adversity, these mothers show remarkable courage and resilience, reminding us of the strength of the human spirit even in the most difficult circumstances"
Sarah recounted her ordeal to The New Arab, which paints a vivid picture of the harsh reality faced by Gazan mothers. In a hospital strained to its limits, with minimal medical resources and no pain relief, she brought her child, Yahya, into the world.
It was a birth marked by unimaginable challenges, where the absence of anaesthesia and basic comforts rendered the experience a test of endurance and bravery.
Speaking to The New Arab, Sarah described her birth experience in these words: "It's the harshest experience of my life, maybe I will be the first woman on the earth who wished the pregnancy never ended because of what I lived meanwhile I was giving birth."
The procedure was completed within several hours but without any type of analgesics or anaesthesia even during the surgical interventions that Sarah needed. This is how Yahya came to the world.
The morning after, Sarah witnessed a procession of women, their faces etched with exhaustion and pain, making their way to the hospital after giving birth in their homes during the night.
The darkness of the enclave was not just physical; it shrouded the joy of new motherhood from the world, leaving Sarah to grapple with the profound isolation of her situation.
By the first hours of the day, Sarah, Izz Al-Deen and their newborn baby Yahya left the hospital to the home they sheltered in after an Israeli airstrike destroyed their home in the Al Remal neighbourhood.
Amid displacement, where homes lay shattered by airstrikes, Gazan families lost also their traditions like celebrating preparations, new clothes, special gifts, family gatherings and, sweets sharing with friends, relatives and neighbours.
Yet, even these rituals, designed to provide comfort and support to new mothers, were disrupted. Instead of warm embraces and nourishing foods, Sarah turned to dates to stimulate her milk supply, adapting to the circumstances with remarkable resilience.
The challenges extended beyond the physical realm. Separated from their families due to displacement, Sarah and her husband faced the daunting task of caring for their newborn, Yahya, without the usual support networks. Their determination to protect and nurture their child in the face of adversity is a testament to the strength that Gazan families exhibit in times of crisis.
On the X platform, a Palestinian lady celebrated the birth of a girl at one of the overcrowded UN schools: “My relatives, who were sitting together in the shelter centre, had a pregnant woman who was giving birth on the night of October 27th. All night long we all recited the Qur’an and prayed to her to have a smooth delivery.
She gave birth in the shelter centre, without a mattress suitable for sleeping, and without drinking water. Without electricity for the child, without healthy food. A week later, the lady posted how they celebrated the baby Juman:
“It was a week ago for Juman, who was born in the shelter centre. Yesterday, we bathed her the week’s bath in the shelter room. We preferred that she take a bath with our drinking water but there were no roses for her bath. We sent the young men to bring olive leaves and we put our gold in the water as well. We dressed her in the best clothes and photographed her, listening to the sounds of the launching of resistance missiles towards our occupied land."
Unchildling before birth
In the bustling streets of London, amid a sea of protesters, Palestinian mother, physician, and neuroscience researcher Beesan Warasna cradles her baby, Omar.
As she gazes into his innocent eyes, her thoughts drift to the countless pregnant women, mothers giving birth, and newborns entering the world amidst the horrors of war, struggling in harsh conditions.
In a conversation with The New Arab, Beesan, both a mother and a doctor, paints a stark picture of the immense trauma faced by mothers and babies in Gaza during these devastating times.
Birth, even in ideal circumstances, is widely acknowledged as a challenging and often traumatic experience. Yet, in the war-ravaged confines of Gaza, childbirth takes on a whole new dimension of distress, becoming an extreme form of trauma.
Beesan delves into the physiological intricacies, explaining that the body requires a surge in oxytocin, the hormone responsible for initiating labour and facilitating childbirth.
This surge is a response to feeling safe and loved. However, stress disrupts this process, leading to elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which counteracts oxytocin, causing a pause in labour.
This pause, under the duress of war, results in severe complications for both the mother and the baby, posing critical risks such as oxygen deprivation.
In many cases, it necessitates instrumental delivery or urgent C-sections, procedures rendered nearly impossible due to the dire shortage of healthcare resources in Gaza.
Shockingly, reports from witnesses and UNFPA highlight that C-sections are often performed without anaesthesia in Gaza Strip hospitals, a cruel reality that further compounds the suffering.
On the other hand, the stress and high levels of cortisol levels suppress the substance B which is an anaesthetic secreted by the body to numb itself.
Privacy, or rather the lack thereof, emerges as another significant concern in the birthing process within a war zone.
Overcrowded hospitals, teeming with refugees and the injured, strip women of their privacy during labour, leaving them feeling violated and abused, exacerbating their stress. Beesan emphasizes this issue as an additional layer of humiliation imposed on the people of Gaza, a blatant violation of their basic human rights.
Amid these challenges, the impending arrival of their child fills expectant mothers with growing concerns. The traumatic experiences endured during childbirth may haunt them, leading to nightmares and deep-seated memories of pain.
These emotional scars threaten the delicate bond between mother and baby, leaving a lasting impact on their relationship in the long term.
The heartbreaking situation in Gaza highlights the urgent need for international attention and humanitarian aid, especially for mothers.
Despite unimaginable adversity, these mothers show remarkable courage and resilience, reminding us of the strength of the human spirit even in the most difficult circumstances.
Salam AbuSharar is a Palestinian pharmacist, activist and blogger
Follow her on Twitter: @SalamAbuSharar