|A girl holds the hand of her caretaker in Khza’a village, near Khan Younis, Gaza. The need for psychosocial support for children and their families continues.|
By Lóa Magnúsdóttir
GAZA, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 21 April 2009 – Plastic sheets cover the windows of the small house where Mona, 17, lives with her parents and five younger siblings. The house was heavily damaged during the conflict in Gaza that ended earlier this year.
But it is not the broken windows or damaged walls that weigh most heavily on this family. Instead, it is the fact that in January, Mona lost her leg when shrapnel hit the shelter where she and her family were staying during the most intensive aerial bombardments of Gaza.
The conflict in Gaza, which occurred between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, took a great economic, social and psychological toll on children and families. Many witnessed the deaths of caregivers, siblings and friends. All border crossings were virtually sealed; children and their families had nowhere to run, no refuge from the violence.
Difficulty in finding safety
“We were scared when we heard the noise of the bombardment. The whole house shook and we felt that the house was about to collapse on us,” says Mona. “We moved from one room to another, but we did not know which room could be the safest.”
As the shelling got increasingly intense, Mona's father decided to move his family out of the house.
“The family was terrified, the children were screaming, I did not know how to calm them down,” he recalls. After fleeing the shelling from house to house for a few days, never finding a safe location for the children, the family moved to a UN shelter.
|Mona Salah al-Ashqar, 17, sits with her mother, Um Said, in their home in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza. Mona was wounded and lost her leg when an artillery shell hit their shelter In January.|
Ten days in a shelter
Mona and her family spent ten days at the shelter. One day at dawn, the family heard a loud explosion nearby. Moments later, an artillery shell hit the room where Mona was staying with her mother, aunt, and sisters. Muna recalls feeling dizzy, seeing the room fill with smoke and hearing the distant screams of her family who thought they had lost her. Mona's father evacuated her to the hospital, where the doctors amputated her leg below the knee.
Children accounted for roughly a third of the dead and wounded due to the hostilities; 431 children were killed and 1,872 children were left injured.
It is further estimated that up to 30 per cent of people injured, including 560 children like Mona, sustained severe injuries that without proper rehabilitation could result in permanent disability.
'We had a happy life'
But some of the wounds from the conflict are not visible. Sarah, 12, is receiving help from the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution which is supported by UNICEF and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department, also known as ECHO.
“Before the invasion, we had a happy life, we used to have a garden, a very nice garden. Me and my other brothers and sister used to play in it, but after the war, this garden is gone,” says Sarah. “It disappeared with everything that used to be in it. It was replaced with destruction. Now, our life has turned into hell and is full of sadness.”
Counselling, along with the chance to play with her friends, is helping Sarah to come to terms with her loss. “I started to attend and found that all my friends are here. My life changed and is better than before. My friends shared my grief,” she says.
Waking up to a new reality
In the hospital, Mona was in a lot of pain, but the support she received from her family, friends and community helped her cope. “When I talk to people, I forget my condition and immediately I feel better,” she says.
Mona has been receiving counselling from the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR), supported by UNICEF and ECHO. She has also been able to call a UNICEF-supported toll-free hotline.
“I feel more relaxed when I speak to the support person on the toll-free line. It helps me to discharge my feelings and emotions,” Mona says.
For Mona, the support from the PCDCR counsellor’s home visits has provided her with an outlet for her emotions and given her a greater sense of normalcy. The counsellor has encouraged her to be patient in the face of her ordeal, as Mona will have to put her dreams of going to university on hold until she is able to obtain the treatment and rehabilitation she so desperately needs.
In Gaza, where medical facilities are plagued by access restrictions and patient referrals abroad are no longer an option, Mona and other children like her face an uncertain future.
UNICEF and the EU