A long path to recovery for children in Gaza
Many of the youngest survivors of the latest conflict in Gaza are in desperate need of treatment – not only for serious physical injuries, but also for psychological wounds that may take even longer to heal.
By Catherine Weibel and Loulou d’Aki
GAZA, State of Palestine, 8 August 2014 – The lives of many of Gaza’s children have been lost or changed forever after a month marked by death, destruction and fear.
For 12-year-old Mohammed Mousa, playing with his friends will never be the same.
Stuck in a crowded house for three straight weeks, Mohammed and his friends ventured outside one afternoon, eager to play in a nearby park and escape the confinement and the fear. A ceasefire had been called between Israel and Hamas.
“We were playing when suddenly I heard the sound of planes above in the sky,” the boy recalls.
“After that, there were deaths and injuries. I saw bodies torn into pieces everywhere,” he says softly from the hospital bed where he is now recovering.
Ten children were reported killed in the blast that injured Mohammed near al-Shati refugee camp, on the edge of Gaza City.
“I saw my best friend, Mohammed Asom, lying dead beside me,” Mohammed says. “I fainted. When I woke up, I was here, in a hospital.”
The boy was injured by a piece of shrapnel that severed a nerve in his back, leaving him paralysed from the hips down.
In the same room, his friend, 10-year-old Mohammed Eila, lies on another small bed. The left half of his face and body were burnt in the blast. Doctors, concerned an operation might do more harm, had to leave pieces of shrapnel in the child’s stomach.
Many of the young victims suffered injuries that need treatment outside the coastal enclave, because local medical facilities cannot handle them.
“I want to go back home. I want to see my friends,” says Mohammed Eila, before adding, “I mean – those who survived the blast.”
The boy says he wants to attend science class and study, so that he can become a doctor and help people.
At least 447 children in Gaza were killed in a month as a result of airstrikes and shelling, an indication of the devastating toll that the conflict has taken on the youngest and most vulnerable.
Around 70 per cent of the children killed were 12 years old or younger – the youngest a 10-day-old baby girl. Another 2,744 children were reported injured.
Along with physical injuries, the fighting has brought serious psychological wounds.
Seven-year-old Sara Ahmed, dressed in a pink dress that belies her sad mood, has stopped speaking. Since being rescued from the rubble of her home following an airstrike, she only moans and cries.
Those who found her said they had to take her out of the arms of her dead father, who was still cradling her.
The little girl has gone through surgery three times. She can no longer move her leg after a nerve was severed.
A small gift
How do you help a child who stops playing, talking or functioning normally after injury or trauma? This is the job of counsellors working in UNICEF-supported emergency psychosocial teams operated by the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR).
From the first days of the latest conflict, 60 counsellors were deployed throughout Gaza by PCDCR. They have provided initial psychosocial support to 2,206 children in desperate need of counselling after they have suffered injuries, lost family members, or seen their homes destroyed.
“Our initial goal is to minimize the child's suffering as much as possible,” says Iyad Abu Hjayer, director of PCDCR's branch in Gaza. “We bring the child a small gift to show him or her that we care. We want them to see we are at the hospital to support them, and that we are here to help them.”
Children who were injured in Gaza are only starting to make their way on the long path to recovery. Extended counseling will be needed before they can smile again, and it may take years before they can feel a sense of joy.
“Sitting next to a child who has been gravely injured, sometimes burnt, paralyzed, amputated or blinded, makes me feel mixed up inside," says Abu Hjayer.
“It makes me very angry against whoever did this to them. It also makes me feel helpless and sad about the child's future,” he says. “But once I start talking with them, I feel useful, and I start feeling better, because I know it will help them start coping with the atrocities they faced.”