How to distract a starving child: Hunger in Rafah amid Israel’s war on Gaza

Two mothers recount how hunger took hold of their children and what they do to try to make sure they survive somehow.

A Palestinian child looks on while waiting to receive food
A Palestinian child looks on while waiting to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food, as Israel's war on Gaza continues, in Rafah on February 20, 2024 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

Rafah, Gaza – A tiny little girl called Wafaa is sitting in front of a tent in Tal as-Sultan, playing in the sand listlessly as she cries with hunger.

It is difficult to tell how old she is given her emaciated frame, but her mother, Tahrir Baraka, 36, tells Al Jazeera that Wafaa is two years old.

Baraka is despondent in the family’s worn-out tent, holding a can of peas and trying to start a fire to cook something for her five children.

“I’m worried so much about my children. I don’t care if I eat, I worry about them, they’ve done nothing wrong to be starved like this,” she says.

Hunger stalks the children

Children up and down the Gaza Strip are going hungry every day, as are their parents who often go without to try to give their children at least one meagre meal a day.

With Israeli bombing overhead and a severe shortage of aid coming into the already aid-reliant and besieged enclave, families split their waking hours between wondering where they can keep their children safe and where they can find a bit of food or a little water.

Baraka and her family were displaced from Khan Younis, where they had a house in the city’s western refugee camp.

“It was a struggle to find enough flour to make some bread for the kids,” Baraka said. “Then we had displaced family members from Bani Suhaila come to stay with us as well and things got worse.

“I would give my share of bread to my kids to quiet their hunger. We couldn’t buy any other food as everything got so expensive, and my electrician husband has had no work since the beginning of the war.”

Across from Baraka’s tent, a similar situation has taken hold for Marwa Talbani, 32, and her family as displacement affects all these mothers and their children the same way, the only difference being how they try to feed their children.

Hoping against hope

“We were displaced from Tel al-Hawa in Gaza City, fleeing the bombing and making the exhausting trip south. But back then, it was still the beginning of the war, in late October.

“I managed to put a few things in my bag for my children to eat on the way and now my six-year-old daughter Kenzi opens the bag every day, hoping to find something left to eat.

“She hopes she forgot a piece of biscuit or a cheese sandwich, but unfortunately it’s all been eaten since we came to this tent.”

Rafah is massively overcrowded, with nearly 1.5 million people crammed into a tiny space, some having managed to find tents, others rigging up precarious shelters, and still more sleeping out in the open, unable to find anything to protect themselves and their families from the elements.

Displaced Palestinian children wait to receive food at a tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 27, 2024.
Displaced Palestinian children wait to receive food at a displacement camp in Rafah on February 27, 2024 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

What resources were available in this area are now depleted, and the displaced people there are largely reliant on sporadic, sparse aid deliveries and meals prepared by volunteer organisations.

“The people of Gaza are known for their generosity and they love to feed everyone,” Baraka said sadly. “But in this war, nobody can even feed their family.”

When Baraka and her family left Khan Younis, she was able to bring only a piece of bread, a tin of sardines and a bottle of water with her.

The family was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint on their way south, and the soldiers there let her and the children through, but turned her husband back, leaving her to wander, scared and aimless, till she reached some makeshift shelters by the sea.

There, she divided the piece of bread between her children, giving each a small pocket with some sardines inside it, and she herself went without food or water for three days.

“I don’t like the sea any more after those freezing two days and one night that we spent there,” Baraka said.

“My husband did join us though, the next day. I was weeping in the cold by the sea, and my nine-year-old son Jawad was comforting me, telling me his dad would catch up with us, when he appeared.”

‘I’m going to die of hunger’

Now, Baraka and Talbani are waging a daily battle in the camp, trying to find anything to feed their children.

“I have to tell my kids every day that we can’t buy this or that food. Biscuits are expensive, but they like them. Instead, I give them a few tomatoes just so they have something to eat today, and so on,” Talbani said.

“Children can’t withstand hunger for long. I try to distract them, playing with them in the sand or running around between the tents. But that doesn’t work for long.”

Baraka tries to keep her children busy with errands and projects, and when all else fails, she says: “I’m forced to delay their one meal later and later in the day, closer to evening, when it’s dark outside, and they sleep early.

That does not really help her either though.

“Sometimes my son Amer tells me: ‘I feel like I’m going to die of hunger.’”

Talbani shares the despair, as do all the families around them. “You can hear it in dozens of tents around us, children crying because they’re hungry. This is a war of hunger.

“We can only find canned food, and not much of it. Prices are skyrocketing, and nobody has money. How can we feed our children? Getting a single bag of flour takes hours and hours in line and that one bag doesn’t make enough bread for us, we have to ration it strictly.

“We’re not thinking about saving ourselves, we worry endlessly about saving our children from death, from hunger.”

Source: Al Jazeera