The voices of Gaza’s children
Children in Gaza describe living under Israeli siege and attacks as worse than being in prison.
BEIT LAHIYA, GAZA – The only protection the Awajaa family has against the Israeli rockets is a thin tarpaulin, stretched out over a small plot of land.
The tent, where they have been living on and off since their house was turned to rubble in the 2008-09 Israeli war on Gaza, is one of the first houses on the border, located a mere few hundred metres away from Israel.
“We are the first people to be attacked, and we are the people who can’t escape, as it is just empty lands around us,” said 15-year-old Omsiyat, the eldest of seven children.
Omsiyat considers her family and neighbours also to be victims of Israeli aggression, as their proximity to the border forces them to be one of the most vulnerable targets of attacks.
“This is not a victory, because [the Israelis] are destroying Gaza,” she said. “Yes, we scared them, but they still inflicted damage on us. This is not how we have a victory.
“We did not get two centimetres from Israel. How is this a victory?”
‘I don’t want to die’
The Israeli attacks on Gaza, which lasted eight days and came to an end with an Israeli-instigated ceasefire on Wednesday evening, killed a total of 162 Palestinians, including more than 40 children.
In Omsiyat’s opinion, the armed resistance, while having made some achievements, also put civilians in a very dangerous situation, making them the largest casualties of the war.
“We are older than our age because we have to take care of each other in these situations. There are definitely psychological consequences to what has been happening to us.”
– Sana Al Daaour, 13
“I don’t want to die, and I don’t want anyone else to die, and there is a strong possibility we can be killed.”
While Gaza is often described as an open-air prison due to the crippling siege imposed by Israel, she says the word “prison” is not enough.
“If there was a stronger word than prison, then this is where we are. In a prison you can move around, here you cannot,” she said.
“If you are in a prison, you do not get bombed. Here we are in a prison and we get bombed.”
Awajaa, Omsiyat’s mother, described how her children would clamber on top of her as the missiles fell around them, too afraid to sleep. Four-year-old Zakriyat would cry all the time, insisting her parents lie next to her.
Ten-year-old Hala spent most of the time under a blanket. Three-year-old Layali would be too afraid to move from the bed to the kitchen for food. Six-year-old Diaa, who suffers from hearing and speech problems as a result of the 2008-09 war, has started wetting the bed.
“Diaa keeps asking if the new home we get will be bombed,” she said. “He keeps asking us to tell the Israelis not to hit our new home.”
‘They were more scared’
For 11-year-old Khadra Al Daaour and her five siblings, the fear and sleepless nights were bearable, knowing the Israelis were more afraid than they were.
“We tried to make ourselves calm, we would draw, we would write, we would make our mother tell us funny stories,” she said. “Of course we were scared, but the Israelis were more scared.
“This makes us feel stronger, and pushes us forward.”
Her 13-year-old sister Sana was keen to point out the situation for the children of Gaza is unique in comparison with children elsewhere in the world. For her, they are forced to mature beyond their years.
“We are older than our age because we have to take care of each other in these situations,” she said, explaining that despite this fact, there are still psychological issues as a result.
“There are definitely psychological consequences to what has been happening to us.”
“Some of my friends get so stressed because of the situation, they don’t stop talking until they’ve completely emptied their thoughts. They just want to get rid of everything inside,” she described. “Others stop talking altogether.”
For Khadra, the best distraction is to write and to draw. “I write poems, and I draw,” she said. “Tanks, planes in the sky, children escaping, our resistance carrying guns, these are all things we draw.”
“Right now, we’re making fun of the fact the Israelis were more scared than us,” she said, giggling.
An abnormal situation
Mustafa El Masri, a psychiatrist who works with the World Health Organisation, said in such hostile and abnormal situations, it is important for parents and teachers to keep talking to the children, explain to them what is going on, and listen to what they have to say.
“Depending on the age of the child, parents need to explain what is going on in very honest terms, and to correct misconceptions rather than impose certain views,” he said.
“The culture here is very advanced in the concepts of liberation, self-determination, and right to exist … therefore, the more parents are aware of this, and transmitting this to their children, the more the children understand and can remain calm.”
There are two stages of reaction after such hostilities; the biological, which focuses on self-preservation, and the “meaning-making” stage, where children attempt to digest and understand what has happened, what their role is, and why they are in such a place.
“At the moment, what we see is a ‘normal’ reaction towards the war, such as the inability to sleep, being afraid, and apprehensive,” El Masri said. “If this persists beyond the shock stage, then it needs to be looked into professionally.”
For him, the most important is that parents do not lie to their children, as this is the moment when children are attempting to build their own concepts and values.
“Children in Gaza are not naïve like children in other countries,” he said. “They are very politically aware. Parents should listen to them and answer their questions, no matter how difficult.”
He was keen to point out that having open discussions with children does not equate to normalising conflict and war.
“It is not normal that a person, with his children, be targeted by bombs and simply vanish,” he said. “But it is normal to learn how to prevent it. What we are doing here is coping with an abnormal situation.”
Omsiyat, who wants to be a journalist when she grows up, knows the experiences they have shared among themselves as children will remain with them forever.
“We think and we talk about everything else in the world, but the one thing that connects us all together is war,” she said.
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha