Injured, hungry and alone – the Gazan children orphaned by war

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The mother of this newborn baby did not live long enough to name her
By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Gaza

Born amid the horrors of the war in Gaza, the month-old baby girl lying in an incubator has never known a parent’s embrace.

She was delivered by Caesarean section after her mother, Hanna, was crushed in an Israeli air strike. Hanna did not live to name her daughter.

“We just call her the daughter of Hanna Abu Amsha,” says nurse Warda al-Awawda, who is caring for the tiny newborn at the al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza.

Warning: This piece contains graphic descriptions which some may find upsetting.

In the chaos caused by the ongoing fighting and with entire families almost wiped out, medics and rescuers often struggle to find carers for bereaved children.

“We have lost contact with her family,” the nurse tells us. “None of her relatives have shown up and we don’t know what happened to her father.”

Children, who make up nearly half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million, have had their lives shattered by the brutal war.

Although Israel says it strives to avoid civilian casualties, including issuing evacuation orders, more than 11,500 under-18s have been killed according to Palestinian health officials. Even more have injuries, many of them life-changing.

It is hard to get accurate figures but according to a recent report from Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, a non-profit group, more than 24,000 children have also lost one or both parents.

Ibrahim, lying on the hospital bed, lost his sister, mother and grandfather in a missile strike on his home

Ibrahim Abu Mouss, just 10 years old, suffered severe leg and stomach injuries when a missile hit his home. But his tears are for his dead mum, grandfather and sister.

“They kept telling me they were being treated upstairs in the hospital,” says Ibrahim as his father clutches his hand.

“But I found out the truth when I saw photos on my dad’s phone. I cried so much that I hurt all over.”

The cousins of the Hussein family used to play together but now they sit solemnly by the sandy graves where some of their relatives are buried by a school-turned-shelter in central Gaza. Each has lost one or both parents.

“The missile fell on my mum’s lap and her body was torn into pieces. For days we were taking her body parts from the rubble of the house,” says Abed Hussein, who lived in al-Bureij refugee camp.

“When they said that my brother, my uncle and my whole family were killed I felt like my heart was bleeding with fire.”

With dark bags around his eyes, Abed stays awake at night frightened by the sounds of Israeli shelling and feeling alone.

“When my mum and dad were alive, I used to sleep but after they were killed, I can’t sleep any more. I used to sleep next to my dad,” he explains.

Abed and his two surviving siblings are being looked after by his grandmother but everyday life is very hard.

“There’s no food or water,” he says. “I have a stomach ache from drinking sea water.”

“Everything is sad,” says Kinza, whose father was killed by a missile

Kinza Hussein’s father was killed trying to fetch flour to make bread. She is haunted by the image of his corpse, brought home for burial after he was killed by a missile.

“He had no eyes, and his tongue was cut,” she remembers.

“All we want is for the war to be over,” she says. “Everything is sad.”

Nearly everyone in Gaza now relies on aid handouts for the basics of life. According to UN figures, some 1.7 million people have been displaced, with many forced to move repeatedly in search of safety.

But the UN’s children’s agency, Unicef, says its biggest concern is for an estimated 19,000 children who are orphaned or have ended up alone with no adult to look after them.

“Many of these children have been found under the rubble or have lost their parents in the bombing of their home,” Jonathan Crick, chief of communications for Unicef Palestine, tells me from Rafah in southern Gaza. Others have been found at Israeli checkpoints, hospitals and on the streets.

“The youngest ones very often cannot say their name and even the older ones are usually in shock so it can be extremely difficult to identify them and potentially regroup them with their extended family.”

Abed Hussein, whose parents were both killed, says he can’t sleep at night without them

Even when relatives can be found, they are not always well placed to help care for bereaved children.

“Let’s keep in mind they are often also in a very dire situation,” Mr Crick says.

“They may have their own children to take care of and it can be difficult, if not impossible, for them to take care of these unaccompanied and separated children.”

Since the war started, a local non-profit organisation, SOS Children’s Villages, which works with Unicef, says it has taken in 55 such children, all aged under 10. It has employed additional specialist staff in Rafah to give psychological help.

A senior SOS staff member tells me about a four-year-old who had been left at a checkpoint. She was brought in with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder which left her unable to speak about what had happened to her and her family, but is now making progress after being welcomed with gifts and playing with other children she lives with.

Unicef believes that nearly all children in Gaza are now in need of mental health support.

With their lives shattered, even when there is a lasting ceasefire, many will be left with terrible losses that they will struggle to overcome.

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