The scars of war on Gaza’s children
The screams filled the hospital recovery room as the little girl kicked her legs. Her mother leaned over to comfort her while turning her face away to try to hide her own tears. ‘I want Daddy,’ her daughter cried. However, even a phone call to him did not ease her pain.
Besan Ajrami is from Gaza. A victim of Israel’s eight-day November 2012 war on her home, the nine-year-old is the only one of over 1,000 injured people to be brought to Israel for treatment.
According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, approximately 170 Palestinians were killed, 33 of them children, and 1,269 people were injured during Operation Pillar of Cloud. Besan, in a cruel, twisted way, was one of the lucky ones – she is still alive.
A week after this emotional visit to the hospital, Besan’s mother, Soad, told me what had happened. It was the second day of the war. A Muslim holiday kept Besan and her twin sister Ruba from school. The girls played while their mother cooked lunch. Suddenly, Soad heard a loud bang and the whole house shook, shattering the windows. ‘This war was different from 2008. This time, not one part of Gaza was left untouched. And the area where we live is free of government buildings,’ said Soad, pointing out that there are no alarm systems or shelters in Gaza.
‘Ruba was alright, but when I saw blood on the wall, I knew that Besan had been injured. I ran out to the street, shouting for help. An ambulance was picking up other injured people from the neighbourhood, and they took Besan with them.’
Sami Ajrami, Besan’s father, then received the phone call that every parent dreads. ‘I was shocked and I froze, and then I rushed to the hospital crying while the worst thoughts entered my head,’ he said.
When he arrived he learned that Besan had lost three fingers on her right hand. ‘She was in shock, could not speak and was constantly crying. She could not sleep more than an hour at a time, and then she would wake up scared,’ he said.
Besan’s operation in Gaza proved unsuccessful, and she became a victim in yet another way – a victim of the blockade on Gaza. She was to undergo two more surgeries in Israel.
The Gaza blockade has resulted in significant drug shortages and continues to limit the ability of hospitals to deal with large-scale injuries. According to the UN Office of Co-ordination of Human Affairs (UNOCHA), 40 per cent of the ‘essential drugs’ list and 65 per cent of the ‘essential disposables list’ are out of stock.
Although Besan has suffered emotional and physical pain, Ruba, who saw what happened, was also traumatized. ‘It’s difficult for her to accept that her twin has lost her fingers, and she even refuses to sleep with her in the same room,’ explained their father.
According to Diana Araki from UNICEF, 92 per cent of children in Gaza are afraid of loud sounds and 67 per cent have nightmares as a result of the war in November 2012. Bed wetting is now common among 18 per cent of older youth and 47 per cent of young children. Additionally, children suffer from high levels of stress, fear, lack of concentration and anger and post-traumatic stress disorders and there are widespread problems with coping and interacting.
UNOCHA estimates that 6,800 children whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the recent violence are in urgent need of psycho-social support.
Besan’s long, dark eyelashes cover her light brown eyes, and a faint dimple is indented in her chin. Except for the tip of her thumb, a bandage covers the empty space where her fingers once were.
Her father says that she has not yet returned to school, and prefers to play alone in her bedroom. Sadness has overcome the once-playful girl. Besan’s family is now working to get her used to using her left hand, ‘but it’s hard to convince her,’ says her father.
But he is optimistic. ‘I believe that she will get over it soon and do all of the things she used to do in the past. She is a strong girl, despite the physical injury.’ Her parents are thinking of prosthetic fingers so that she will not feel different from other children.
For the Ajrami family the outcome is somewhat happier than it could have been; Besan will return to Israel to continue treatment. But there are many other mothers whose children lost more than fingers, and many other fathers who received that dreaded call. War is not the answer.