In Gaza, children returning to school are scarred by violence
By Catherine Weibel
GAZA CITY, occupied Palestinian territory, 27 November 2012 - As schools reopen across Gaza, children have only one thing on their minds - the violence they have witnessed and cannot forget.
At Gaza City’s Um al-Qura school, little girls walk through a playground littered with debris and glass, nervously peering at the damage. They were happy to go back to school, but have found a pockmarked landscape in which even the most familiar sights have taken on haunting aspects.
In one of the classrooms, sentences written by children are still visible on the blackboard, despite a hole carved by a blast. Several of the rooms are missing walls. They were blown open when an air strike hit the Ministry of Interior next door. The openings offer a panoramic view over the remains of that building, its roof lying on the street.
Schools suffer damage
At least 136 schools and kindergartens were damaged in Gaza during the week of violence between the coastal enclave and Israel, and the number is expected to rise.
Children make up half of Gaza’s population of 1.6 million.
Ten-year-old Kholoud searches for her belongings among scattered furniture and doors blown off their hinges by the blast. Her clothes are full of the thick dust that floats in the air and burns our throats.
“One day there was electricity, and my mother called me. She was watching the news and said: ‘Look, an air strike hit the Ministry of Interior, and your school was damaged,’” Kholoud recalls. “They were showing my school on TV. I could not believe it. Today, I came to see for myself, and it’s worse than I thought.”
Kholoud’s friend Nourhan is still startled each time a car drives by. “It sounds like a missile is falling nearby,” she whispers.
In the courtyard, children gather around posters plastered on the remaining walls. They display photos of strange objects and warn children not to pick up anything from the rubble that looks like these objects, as they might die. The posters are part of an awareness-raising campaign led by UNICEF and the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) to alert children and their families to the danger of explosive remnants of war.
Another school in Gaza City suffered less extensive damage, but the students find it difficult to study. Many can’t take their eyes from two giant craters carved into green lawns by air strikes on Gaza Stadium, next door.
Violence echoes, in children
“How can children start healing when the scars of violence are everywhere?” asks Al Farabi School Principal Wafa Zaki Ali, as colleagues clean up broken glass and tap plastic sheeting to cover blown-out windows.
All of the children have come back to school, except for an 11-year-old girl who was injured in the eye by a shard of glass. All of the students have experienced some degree of violence. Some speak of relatives killed or injured; many have seen their house or their neighbour’s house damaged by air strikes or shelling.
“The children cannot focus on their studies. They want to share their experience of violence. They want to discuss why it happened and whether it will happen again,” says school counselor Nadia Al Ashqar. Ms. Al Ashqar says it is difficult to convince children that they are safe. Many had already experienced violence and destruction four years earlier, during Operation Cast Lead.
“All these children have a story to tell and heard myriads of other stories. A 5-year-old girl told her friends that her uncle was killed in an air strike as he walked to his girlfriend’s house to propose,” says Ms. Al Ashqar.
Some of the youngest girls start shaking at the smallest sound; others will not go to the bathroom alone. “One girl told me she feared the shelling would start again and she might die,” says Ms. Al Ashqa.
The trauma is reflected in children’s drawings. Many have produced violent images, such as families waiting in houses as military aircraft drop bombs from the sky.
Repairing schools is a priority
“Children will start healing only once they feel safe at home and at school. This is why repairing the schools is a priority for UNICEF,” says UNICEF Chief of Field Office in Gaza Diane Araki.
In the coming weeks, 20,000 school bags will be distributed, and 118 schools will be repaired for minor damage. The emotional wounds will take longer to heal.