A shattered childhood: The war on Gaza’s kids

It was the first day of Eid, the Muslim celebration that caps the end of Ramadan, a day meant for celebration, joy and fun. But in Gaza, the day ended in bloodshed. More than 50 children were standing in line, waiting for their turn on a ramshackle carrousel, when a bomb hit, blasting the day of joy into a day of mourning.

I stayed in Gaza for only five days. I write “only” because the civilians are trapped there. They can’t flee because the borders with Israel and Egypt are closed and, on the other side, there is only water patrolled by Israeli military ships. That is why Gaza is called the biggest prison in the world.

During my short time in Gaza, I spent a lot of time at Shifa, the main hospital. I’ve covered numerous conflicts and wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen during my ten years as a journalist, but I’ve never seen so many dead or wounded children in such a short span of time. “It’s a war against the children,” I heard several foreign journalists say. By that they meant that, even if it isn’t Israel’s intention to hit the kids, the fact is that hundreds have already died, killed by Israeli bombings.

During my fourth day there, ambulances carried untold wounded children to the hospital and – if the kids were lucky – their grieving parents, too. How many mothers and fathers did I not see at that hospital, distraught by grief or staring ahead of them with vacant eyes because they’d been told their child had died and they would never be able to hug or kiss their child again.

We pride ourselves on professional distance to events. But it was unbearable. Many times I broke down. I had to remove myself and find somewhere to cry unobserved because I couldn’t take anymore. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. A mother was told her child was dead and she fainted. A man was told his son was would never rise from the hospital bed again. He started shouting “Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar,” with a quivering voice as if the invocation of God could somehow help him, now that his child was gone for good.

A boy was trying to walk down the hallway in the hospital, leaning on two adult family members. He wasn’t older than 12. Half of his face was shattered. For the rest of his life, he will bear the mark of war and people will look away from his mutilated face when they see him walking down the street. Another kid, a five-year-old girl with burns all over her body, is also scarred for life.

A three-year-old boy was so frightened by the bombing that he ran from his father’s arms, falling in his panic and sustaining a concussion. Next to the boy was a little car toy, donated by a charity to celebrate Eid. The young father was standing next to boy’s bed, caressing his son’s cheeks. He was trying to be brave but he had tears in his eyes. Once in a while the child would throw up. The father did his best to comfort the kid, who fainted every time he finished vomiting.

As I was leaving, I went over and gave the father a hug. I have a six-year old son and a seven-year-old daughter and I could imagine what he was going through. “May God be with your child,” I told him. He nodded politely and smiled a little. It occurred to me that it wasn’t only the children who needed comfort – the parents did, too.

During a 24-hour ceasefire, the residents of Shujaiya, Beit Hanoun and Khan Younis, where some of the most severe fighting took place, now had the chance to finally search for loved ones under the rubble.

When I walked around Shujaiya, I couldn’t stop thinking of the pictures I’ve seen of the aftermath of the Dresden bombing in 1945.

It was like everything had been swept off the face of the earth. Crying men and women searching for their belongings and their memories in the dust. “Nothing! There is nothing left,” a crying woman was saying. I saw a group of men suddenly shouting. I ran over and realised that they had found a body in the rubble.

Other men came running, some of them looking desperate. When they saw the body, they started to cry – a father, a brother. His body was so crushed and dusty that it was impossible to determine his age.

Two women came running toward the body. A man stopped them and told them it was best to wait. The women tried to run past them, but the men held them firmly, struggling to spare them from the sight. The women started to shout the man’s name: “Mohammed. Mohammed,” as if trying in vain to wake him. The younger woman fell to the ground in grief. The men tried to bring life back to her lifeless body.

In Beit Hanoun the destruction was almost as bad as in Shujaiyah. Here, too, people were looking for their belongings in the rubble.

Very close to the border I saw a couple. The woman told me that their house had been bombed. She showed me around. She kept asking: “Where are the rockets? Where are the Hamas fighters? Why did they do this to us?” Her husband was crying in the background. “We are innocent civilians. Why are the Israelis punishing us? What have we done to them? Why do they start a new war against us almost every two or three years,” he asked wiping his eyes, which were red with grief.

After five days in Gaza, I wonder what the future will hold for these families; these children who have already witnessed so much. Even those who’ve escaped physical injury so far have been hurt. This is a scarred generation. M


By Nagieb Khaja

Nagieb Khaja is a Danish filmmaker and journalist who has reported from conflicts in Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria.

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