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Gaza’s Children Are Enduring Overwhelming Trauma

On October 30, a lone child, about 7 years old, from northern Gaza arrived by ambulance at the emergency room of al-Shifa Hospital where I worked as a nurse. She needed urgent brain surgery after her home was bombed by the Israeli forces, and most of her family was killed. She was rushed into surgery and after several hours, she was sent back to the ER because there was no space in the recovery area. I was the nurse in charge of her care.

After a while, the child woke up. The surgery had gone well, but soon she recognized that she was in the hospital. She began crying and asked about her mother repeatedly. I didn’t know how to answer; we didn’t have any specifics about the rest of her family. I tried to calm her down and ease her tears. I wracked my brain for a way to distract her from the intense longing for her missing mother.

So, I brought her a box of chocolate milk I had saved in my closet at the hospital during the first days of the war. I brought in my colleague Hadeel to play the role of her mother. Hadeel and I sat with the little girl and gave her the milk to sip. She immediately settled down a little. I felt proud that I had managed to bring her some relief. When it was time for Hadeel to leave, she held the little girl’s hand and told her everything was okay.

That calm was short-lived, of course. The effect of the painkiller had worn off. Fortunately, her treatment appointment was soon, so I could give her enough medicine to tide her over.

As dawn approached, the girl finally started to feel drowsy. I prayed for her to sleep, hoping to quiet the noise inside her mind. I was certain that her worst pain wasn’t physical but psychological. I tried to imagine what she endured under the rubble of her home. Did she scream? Did she call out for her mother? Or did she faint? How could this small body endure the weight of collapsing floors and the blaze of rockets? I wanted to believe that one day, the traumatic memories of this genocidal conflict would fade, and she’d continue her life normally. But I struggled to picture any world where a child recovers from this trauma. And there are so many children like her – many in much worse situations. Since the beginning of the invasion of Gaza, most of the bombing victims I tended to in the hospital are children. I have seen so many innocents torn apart in my time training as an ER nurse in Al Shifa Hospital. How can any child endure the emotional and physical pain, much less make sense of this war? Children as young as toddlers are witnessing their parents dying in front of them, and sometimes their entire family, leaving them alone, orphans. On top of that, so many of them suffer grievous injuries of their own. Amputated arms and legs have become common. How will they continue their lives after this?

gaza children
Children in Gaza are forced to scrounge for food. The World Bank found that after six months of war half the population faces imminent risk of famine.

On November 13, when Al-Shifa Hospital was forced by incoming Israeli troops to go out of service, another child, maybe 5 years old, was there with her mother. I was shocked when I changed her bandages. Her left arm and some fingers on her right hand had been amputated, along with several toes on her left foot. There were no painkillers available, yet she showed no reaction. I wondered why; maybe she was still in shock.

These children are being forced to mature well before their time. They carry the weight of many years on their shoulders, although they have lived just a little. From past experience, I knew they would feel constant fear that this war will never end.

Later, when I had evacuated to a tent encampment in Rafah, I saw that many children’s lives had begun resembling those of adults. They must search for work to earn a little money to buy some food. They line up at food distribution locations for hours, just for a little rice or a small number of lentils. Now even those meager offerings are scarce. They are forced to live in a tent and an environment lacking the minimum necessities. The air is filled with the smell of body odour, human waste and trash. I noticed that most of them suffer from night terrors or talk to themselves during the day. Their conversations are dominated by war and bombing, telling stories of how they escaped from harrowing situations. Even their games mimic the war. And many are suffering from the embarrassing problem of involuntary urination. All the result of accumulated trauma.

As for me, their caregiver, it’s turned me from a person trying to be a resilient stoic to someone in a shell shocked daze, constantly lost in thought, plagued by insomnia at night and melancholy during the day. I feel desensitized and numb. I remain in my tent for long periods of time, pondering the future: What will happen after the tents? Will this war ever end, or will we all perish? All I know for certain is that these children’s pain and suffering is beyond words and their wounds may never heal.

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