Illustration: Simon Letch
On Thursday July 10 I was watching our local news in Gaza and heard there had been a missile attack which resulted in several deaths in the El Halabi family. Seven of my family members had been killed. In that moment the day’s news instantly shocked me to the core.
I wanted to be beside my family, only kilometres away, to help them pull out the buried children from under the rubble. But the blind missiles throughout the night made it too dangerous to move around.
All seven victims in my family were women and children. And it became eight after my injured pregnant cousin lost her baby in an operation to save her life. She was due to give birth this week.
That night everyone in Gaza was counting the death toll of children – numbers that are rapidly increasing. Most of the children, like the casualties in my family, had died under the rubble of homes that were demolished by air strikes without any warning.
Every hour of every day we see scenes on TV of children who have been killed in the violence. I am sure it is hard for most people in the world to imagine children not only robbed of their innocence and childhood but also their lives, their remains destroyed by fire.
In the past year, World Vision’s projects in Gaza achieved amazing results with children, using psychosocial programs to significantly reduce their distress. Only a few months ago we gathered children to fly kites that carried messages of peace, protection of children and hope for the future. We had established safe spaces for children that allowed them to rest and heal after experiencing the world they knew being torn apart. After previous periods of conflict they shared their nightmares and drew pictures of missile attacks, and loved ones who had been killed. When they were ready, they received counselling.
Now these newly healed wounds have been ripped open. Having learnt to trust in the possibility of hope, they’re experiencing a world of horror all over again. Almost all the children who have been a part of these wellbeing initiatives have been affected by this recent outbreak of violence.
The houses of many families have been demolished and children now find themselves homeless – living in temporary United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters at schools. They are terrified of incoming attacks.
There are virtually no safe places to go.
Open spaces on rooftops and beaches can quickly turn deadly. Children have had to develop survival skills that no child should need. They are witnessing things they will never forget: missiles and artillery attacks, the destruction of their homes and neighbourhoods, the dead bodies of brothers, sisters, parents and friends.
The traumatic events taking place have them exposed to terrifying scenes that could be forever imprinted in their memories and take years of recovery. They alter a child’s understanding of the world and how they need to behave to survive.
I am concerned that the values we have instilled in these children will be swept aside by the devastating bombs.
Abrar, 14, is in hospital after being injured by the violence and told a World Vision staff member, "When I came to the hospital I wasn’t able to sleep at night at all, the horrible sounds of rockets and bombings all around, I am afraid of being attacked again.” An eight-year-old told of her fear when the red light on the F-16 comes on signalling that a missile is about to be fired and people on the ground must hide. Other children tell of losing their parents, and of the terror and anxiety that consumes them when they think of living without them.
Life in the Gaza Strip is like being trapped inside a giant prison. More than 1.8 million people live in an area only 32 kilometres long and a few kilometres wide. In other conflict zones around the world, families are usually able to flee to other parts of the country, or across borders. But here there is no escape, United Nations shelters are already overwhelmed.
No child - whether Palestinean or Israeli - should have to live this way. They all have the right to live in safety, free from violence, fear and need. Children and communities in Gaza are especially vulnerable, due to the effects of more than five years of blockade.
Despite the current dangers of working in Gaza, World Vision is distributing food, medical supplies and supporting critical psychosocial support for some of the most vulnerable families. Before the current outbreak of violence World Vision had trained more than 8000 people in psychological first aid so that Gazans were equipped to provide immediate care and support for the emotional wellbeing of those affected by such conflict.
But responding to urgent needs is only one essential part of the puzzle. We call for an immediate halt to this vicious cycle of violence from both sides to the conflict. For the sake of the children in this region we need lasting and just peace for children caught up in the clash today and for generations to come.
Mohammed El Halabi is the World Vision Program Manager in Gaza.