In occupied Palestinian territory, the violence has had a direct impact on children, and families struggle to cope
By Catherine Weibel
GAZA, occupied Palestinian territory, 20 November 2012 – The violence has had a direct impact on children, and families are struggling to cope.
In Gaza, 22 children have been killed in air strikes, and another 277 injured. In Israel, 14 children have been injured by rocket fire. The number of casualties is expected to rise.
Scared by the terrifying noises of war night and day, children in Gaza and Israel are displaying worrying symptoms of psycho-social distress. Symptoms include bed-wetting, flashbacks, nightmares, fear of going out in public, fear of being alone and withdrawal.
Dealing with loss
In Beit Hanoun, an agricultural area in Gaza, Ahmed Bassiouni talks about how, one night, he had to comfort his children before they went to bed. His 15-year-old daughter Diana pulled the blanket over her head in an attempt to feel safer. Shortly after, an air strike hit close to home. “All the children were screaming, except Fares. I could see that he had been killed by shrapnel. I put a blanket over him – it was a terrible sight. I could not let his siblings see him. After that, I screamed.”
Already struggling to come to terms with the death of his 9-year-old son, Mr. Bassiouni says he does not know how to help his other five children. “They will not eat, they will not play and they will not go outside. They just remain indoors and cry,” he says over the phone. The rumbling sound of shelling can be heard through the receiver.
Another family has lost a child in Beit Hanoun. Jamal Nasser explains how he asked his wife and youngest child to sleep under the stairway that night, while he and four sons slept in the living room. That is where 15-year-old Oudai was killed by shrapnel, and his brother Tareq injured.
“Oudai was very good at school – he dreamt of becoming a physician,” says Mr. Nasser. “Now, this will never happen. His brother Tareq is in hospital. He will not stop crying that he is going to die, even if we tell him he won’t.
Yesterday, he said he wanted to go home. I could not bring myself to tell him we are not going back; there’s nothing left.”
Mr. Nasser says he does not know where to take his other children because nowhere seems safe. Stressing that he used to work in Israel, he says, “This war is robbing our children of their dreams.”
Supporting families in distress
Children make up half of Gaza’s population of 1.6 million.
Five emergency psycho-social teams supported by UNICEF are trying to reach out to the Bassiouni and Nasser families. They are experiencing delays because of the continuous danger in the area.
The teams are visiting hospitals and homes across Gaza whenever conditions permit. UNICEF is supporting partners to launch a hotline so that families can talk with a counselor on the phone when movement is restricted.
“For young children, such a major event is traumatic because it undermines their sense of security. They do not understand what is happening, and they feel helpless. Sometimes they even think they are responsible for the distress in their family,” says UNICEF occupied Palestinian territory Chief of Protection Bruce Grant.
“Psycho-social response is about talking to the child, telling him that these events can happen and that it’s normal to be scared. We try to build resilience, but restoring a child’s sense of security is a long-term process,” he says.
Families who have not been directly affected by air strikes worry for their children. With schools closed and recurrent power cuts, overwhelmed parents find it difficult to keep their children at home. Many children wander around the streets, where they can see collapsed buildings, injured people and dead bodies.
At home, the sound of war is overwhelming. “My one-year old son Kamal has not been the same since the air strikes started,” says UNICEF Communication Officer in Gaza Sajy Elmughanni. “He used to be a happy baby, but now he sits and stares blankly. It makes me feel powerless.”