The loss of innocence: What's it like to be a child in Gaza?
According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, between 24,000 and 25,000 children in the Gaza Strip have lost one or both parents, and approximately 640,000 have had their homes destroyed or damaged, leaving them homeless.
The Israeli genocidal assault on the Gaza Strip has had severe impacts on children, both mentally and emotionally, creating traumas that many have not healed from in the aftermath of previous aggressions, especially for those who lost one or both parents.
Deema Shabet, 12 years old, had witnessed the killing of her mother and sisters after the Israeli occupation bombed their house to the north of the Gaza Strip.
She is currently displaced in the Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir el-Balah with her dad who survived the bombardment.
"When I saw the bodies of my mum and sisters lying next to me, I did not want to survive. I wanted to join them"
"The Israeli army killed my mum and four of my sisters. My beloved mum was just 40 years old. She used to take care of me, cook for me, and dress me up. I miss her dearly.”
Deema and her family were awake when the bombardment occurred. "I heard a strong whistle and then an airstrike hit our house and destroyed it. I was conscious but buried under the rubble. I was struggling to breathe as the sand filled my mouth and the smoke closed my eyes."
For a moment, Deema thought she was killed along with her mum and sisters. "At the last moment, the civil defence team arrived and pulled me out. I was bleeding from my mouth. I was terrified and my body was trembling. It was cold, extremely cold.
"When I saw the bodies of my mum and sisters lying next to me, I did not want to survive. I wanted to join them."
Before the assault, Deema had a joyful life with her routine of going to school, playing with her sisters, and enjoying her mum's food.
"I was the happiest child but my life now is horrific. I feel isolated and prefer to stay with my dad all the time. I have no sisters to play with anymore. I lost all my loved ones in the blink of an eye," the young child says.
"We are just children, but in Gaza, we are born adults directly due to the harsh conditions we have to endure under occupation."
Recounting her journey to the south, Deema saw tanks and armed mercenaries. "I witnessed a man in his twenties who was injured. The people tried to rescue him, but they had to leave him to die. They killed him while he was still alive. Does this feel right?
"My message to the world is that children in Gaza deserve a better life just like all children around the world.”
Rakan Dawood, 10 years old, has been displaced from the northern part of Gaza to Al-Aqsa Hospital. He, along with his mother and sister, sought refuge there after their home was bombed in late October.
"We were safe in the house when an Israeli warplane fired an airstrike that bombed our house. The civil defence was able to rescue us, but my father was killed."
Rakan was buried under heavy stones of the rubble. "The civil defence team needed a driller to remove the rubble, which they did not have at that moment but they found a way to pull me out. My dad’s blood was all over the place. I was stuck and could not move or help him.”
Unlike ever before, Rakan has now lost his source of safety and sense of caregiving. "I feel extremely lonely and in pain. Before the war, I was happy and full of joy. I loved school and my teachers. My dad used to buy toys for me and play with me. He used to teach me. He used to tell me that I would be a great person when I grew up. I believe there are no good people in this world apart from my mother and father. Now, all I have is my mum."
During his journey to the south, Rakan saw decomposed bodies thrown in the street. He, along with his mum and sister, was searched by the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint where their belongings were taken.
"When I arrived in the south, I felt homeless, with no house or shelter to stay in. The tears streamed through my eyes. It’s God’s power that gave us the strength to go through these hardships. Oppression and occupation will not continue and victory is on our side."
Bahzad Al-Akhras, a doctor and health policy researcher focused on childhood trauma and community mental health in Gaza described child mental health in Gaza as catastrophic and dangerous.
"Losing parents has a devastating impact on children if no immediate intervention is taken due to the attachment bond to parents. Psychologically, children are initially attached to their mothers and then to their fathers. This bond provides a sense of security and caregiving, especially during wars. Losing one or both parents triggers children to feel that the world is a dangerous place to be in. They start viewing it as a source of threat and harm, impacting their psychological development."
Israel's war on children in Gaza
Losing parents during wartime is unexpected and sudden compared to losing parents in normal conditions. "This has a double impact on the child," Bahzad explained to The New Arab, "Especially witnessing their parents being killed under the rubble or by direct bombardment. Children start questioning the way their parents are killed, and they become isolated, nervous, and may exhibit violent behaviours."
Children in Gaza have encountered successive wars and endured continuous traumas, with no opportunity for full recovery from one trauma before facing another.
"In Gaza, children don't have the chance to reach PTSD; rather, they endure ongoing traumas. At this stage of the war, children find it hard to express their pain and sorrows, as their expressive language is not mature enough. Therefore, they express themselves through behaviour. Usually, trauma responses among children are different, but their behavioural expressions are common.
"Children need relatives and counsellors to foster a sense of belonging and provide reassurance, stepping in to fill the void left by absent parents. Unfortunately, these essential forms of support become a luxury that many children in Gaza are deprived of."
Bahzad concluded: "The most important thing to help children is to stop the aggression on Gaza right now so NGOs can start realistic, science-based interventions. Without proper intervention, this trauma could lead to long-term disorders including anxiety disorders with panic attacks, PTSD, generalised anxiety, and emotional disorders, including depression."
Ahmed Alghariz, an emergency trauma counsellor and educator, co-founder of Camps Breakerz, has been working with children experiencing war trauma for 75 days since the genocidal aggression against the Gaza Strip began on October 7.
Alghariz said he met children with different traumas that have impacted their cognitive responses and perceptions of the world. Some of these children lost their parents, while others lost their homes and were pulled from under the rubble.
"The activities we focused on included breaking elements, body percussion, expressing movement, stress-release activities in a circle, body-soul-place-time orientation exercises, mental stability activities, breathing exercises, and meditation through soft music during drawing.
Ahmed explained to The New Arab: "We choose these activities to help children emotionally debrief and express their feelings, distracting them from the mood of war and continuous bombardment.
"Some of the children, especially those who lost their parents, found their sensory cells were not responsive or were slow to respond to the instructions we provided while playing. I had to give individual instructions and guide them through the game to integrate them with their peers.
“Our facilitators became their only source of safety. If we miss one day, we receive tens of 'we missed you' messages. At this stage, children are not getting much attention from their parents — who strive to find food for them. If a bombardment happens, they run to us, hugging us or clutching to our clothes and burying their heads in our laps."
Walaa Sabah is a freelance journalist and community outreach and partnership officer at wearenotnumbers.org