The heavy toll for Gaza parents trying to keep their children safe amid war – The Washington Post

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After more than six months of war, the children of the Gaza Strip have many questions their parents cannot answer. When will the war stop? How many more nights will they sleep on the floor? When can they go back to school? Some still ask after classmates who have been killed.

The adults don’t know what to say.

They feel helpless, desperate and exhausted, they say — worn out by the challenge of tending to visible wounds and those their children try to hide.

To report this story, Washington Post journalists spoke by telephone with 21 parents and children from 15 families in Gaza between January and April. While each situation is unique, the men, women and children all described strikingly similar experiences, with the war exacting a punishing toll on their loved ones and their mental health.

“The feeling of helplessness kills mothers and fathers,” said Muhammad al-Nabahin, a father of four from the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

The Post has commissioned sketches to illustrate the words of the children, because in many cases families had lost their phones or were not able to share photos because of connectivity issues.

Nabahin and other parents said they were painfully aware that their efforts to protect their families could be futile — that forgoing their own meals would not protect their children from hunger, that following evacuation orders would not guarantee their safety.

The war began Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters attacked communities across southern Israel and killed about 1,200 people, including families asleep in their beds. At least 36 of the dead were children. Israel began bombing Gaza within hours; now, much of the Strip is in ruins.

An estimated 29,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of which are women and children

Of the more than 34,000 Palestinians who have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, the majority are women and children. The Israel Defense Forces says that it works to protect civilians, and that Hamas uses them as human shields.

Some 1.7 million Palestinians, about 850,000 of them children, have fled their homes, according to UNICEF — most on foot, weighed down with rucksacks and backpacks filled in haste.

Nabahin said his family barely survived a strike near their house in the Bureij camp in the early weeks of the war. But as they moved from place to place, what his four children kept asking about were the toys they had left behind.

During a week-long pause in the fighting at the end of November, Nabahin agreed to take his children home, to recover whatever they could. But everything was “destroyed,” he said. “They started crying.”

Ahmed, his 13-year-old son, told The Post: “I cannot believe that I am not dead yet.”

“I lost all my friends, my family, and my home. I saw death with my own eyes. I was pulled from under the rubble. All I tell my parents is that I want to live. I don’t like death.”

— Ahmed Abu Lebda, 13 years old

Nabahin described the shame that seeped through him as Ahmed spoke. “I have nothing more than my arm to hide them from death,” he said. His daughter Tala asked for presents when she turned 10 in December, but the family could barely afford the day’s meal.

For many of Gaza’s children, this is not their first war. Those under 18 have survived at least four previous rounds of conflict. Most have never left the blockaded enclave. But their parents tried to build different worlds for them.

End of carousel

Writer Rasha Farhat, 47, taught her four kids about Palestinian culture and Gaza’s beauty, she said. They read books together, then scoured the public libraries for more. Trips to the beach gave them moments to breathe, Farhat said.

The family left Gaza City for Khan Younis on Oct. 14, hoping the city in southern Gaza would be safer. It didn’t feel that way for long. Now in Rafah, where more than 1 million Gazans are sheltering along the Egyptian border, they stay among people they barely know. For a while, the girls asked why they couldn’t go home. They stopped when a neighbor told them their house was gone.

Habiba, 10, still wishes she had brought more clothes and toys.

“I’m talking to you now and I’m afraid,” said Farhat. “I try to hide it from my children, but they notice the fear.”

“I’m trying to be strong,” she said, yet she fears that her body is betraying her. She is losing weight. “Sometimes we laugh hysterically. … Other times we lose control and collapse in tears.”

95 percent of people in the Strip faced “crisis levels of hunger” in March, according to a U.N.-backed report. In the devastated north, UNICEF said, 1 in 3 children younger than 2 were acutely malnourished.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-ibdLmgo-css”>With Israel restricting the flow of aid into Gaza, and chaos impeding the distribution of supplies that do arrive, 95 percent of people in the Strip faced “crisis levels of hunger” in March, according to a U.N.-backed report. In the devastated north, UNICEF said, 1 in 3 children younger than 2 were acutely malnourished.

Adele Khodr, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in early March. By early April, local health authorities said, 28 children had died of malnutrition or dehydration-related complications.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-ibdLmgo-css”>“The child deaths we feared are here and are likely to rapidly increase unless the war ends,” Adele Khodr, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in early March. By early April, local health authorities said, 28 children had died of malnutrition or dehydration-related complications.

Parents “get up and then they have to decide: “Do you stand in line for bread for six hours or do you want to stay and keep the family together,” said Janti Soeripto, CEO and president of Save the Children.

Safia Abu Haben, a grandmother of 12 from the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza who is now living in a tent in Rafah, has tried to create moments of release for the children. She told them stories. She kept checking the supermarket for crayons so they could draw, but there was nothing like that on the shelves anymore.

Mayar, her 12-year-old granddaughter, is struggling to adapt to her new surroundings: “I feel strange in this place,” she said. “This place is not mine at all.”

“I saw the bodies and the dead when our house was bombed at the beginning of the war. When will I return to my home? My mother tells me that we will return soon, but I do not believe her because the missiles do not stop and everything around me says that we will not return.”

— Mayar Abu Haben, 12 years old

In a tent nearby, Muhammad al-Arair, 33, was searching, without luck, for a psychologist who could allay his children’s night terrors.

“I pulled my children out from under the rubble, and they are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “They scream all night. They have a constant feeling that they are still under the rubble.”

Some parents worry they are losing their children to private worlds beyond their reach. Kids who once chattered endlessly are silent and withdrawn. They have thoughts they won’t share.

Nawal Natat, 47, said her teenage daughter started urinating involuntarily. Living in the yard of a girls’ school in Rafah, surrounded by strangers, she only wants to be alone, ignoring her brothers and the cacophony around her. Natat doesn’t know how to talk to her.

“She’s embarrassed,” Natat said. “The reality is bitter and beyond my control.”

End of carousel

Mahmoud al-Sharqawi, 34, said it was he who was pulling back from his three young children, afraid of their questions and ashamed of his inability to provide for them. “Before, I was very close to them — we were friends,” he said. “My heart hurt when they were covered in rainwater and their limbs were shivering. I couldn’t provide them with warmth.”

The war has poisoned any dreams he once had. “I used to imagine my daughter Tala as an engineer, Yasser as a lawyer, and Zaina as a doctor. Now I just imagine them in the street.”

Displaced families are far from their usual doctors, and there is often no treatment available for children with long-term health conditions. Israel has targeted many of the enclave’s hospitals, alleging that they are used by militants, and brought an already shaky health-care system to its knees.

Heba Hindawi, 29, said her 10-year-old daughter, Amal, was born with a hole in her heart, leaving her at greater risk of a heart attack or stroke. When they heard warplanes, Amal would tell Hindawi that she thought her heart might stop if the bombs landed too close; the mother of three would hug her child and assure her she was safe.

“I tell her this,” Heba said, “but I’m sure her heart might actually stop.”

Huddled with her parents and siblings in a tent, Amal just wished that she was warm.

“The rain and the bitter cold eat away at my tired heart. We didn’t sleep a minute all last night because of the heavy rain.”

— Amal Hindawi, 10 years old

said at least two children had recently died from the heat.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-ibdLmgo-css”>As summer approaches, aid workers are beginning to fear the impact of rising temperatures. Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said at least two children had recently died from the heat.

Israel is now threatening to invade Rafah, which it says is Hamas’s last stronghold — but which is also the refuge of last resort for so many Palestinian families.

Natat has run out of ways to explain to her children what is happening to them — there is no justification that makes sense, she said. “They ask me why we’re only facing this in Gaza,” she said. “They always tell me they should have a right to live like children in the rest of the world.”

For Nabila Shinar, 51, the only way to dull the fear is to be honest with her children. “There is no denying the existence of harm to them,” she said. “I try to make them more courageous.”

Her son Yazan, 14, is haunted by what he saw on the road south. He tries to push those images away, though. He feels like one of the adults now.

“I saw murdered women and their children. No one was able to save the lives of those who were bleeding. I still feel remorse and pain for what I saw, but my mother told me that all this will end soon, and I trust my mother.”

— Yazan Shinar, 14 years old

About this story

Illustrations by Ghazal Fatollahi. Design and development by Brandon Ferrill.

Harb reported from London. Claire Parker in Cairo contributed to this report.

Editing by Reem Akkad, Jesse Mesner-Hage and Joseph Moore. Copy-editing by Martha Murdock.

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