Tareq S. Hajjaj
Mondoweiss / August 4, 2022
Children in Gaza can never recover from the last war they experienced, because the next one is always around the corner.
For children, home is often the safest place on earth. But in Gaza, every few years, homes are pushed into the front lines of war, changing the meaning of home altogether for hundreds of thousands of children.
Since 2008, Gaza has endured four crippling wars, each bringing more death and destruction than the last.
The war of 2008, or Operation Cast Lead, resulted in the death of 412 kids, in the span of 21 days of bombing and ground invasion.
Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 resulted in the deaths of 42 children throughout 8 days of shelling.
The 2014 onslaught, Operation Protective Edge, resulted in the deaths of 578 kids in the course of 51 days.
The besieged strip’s latest taste of war came last year, in the midst of Ramadan 2021, this time dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls.
By the end of those 11 days, 66 children were killed. Palestinian children in Gaza under the age of 15 had officially experienced their fourth war since they were born. For those who were killed, they joined the hundreds of children before them.
For those who were lucky enough to survive, they now count the days to the next war, navigating the new life they lead without the loved ones they lost.
These are the stories of two of the children in Gaza who survived the 2021 offensive.
Suzi Ishkontanta (age 8)
“Stones can be re-collected, but a home can’t.” These were the words of eight-year-old Suzi Ishkontanta, who lost her entire family save for her father in May 2021.
“Homes aren’t just made of stones. Homes are families, gatherings, the sound of babies. That’s impossible to get back after the war,” Suzi said.
Suzi and her family lived in the Al-Rial neighborhood of Gaza City, which came under intense bombing on May 17th, 2021.
Suzi was in her room, wrapped in her mother’s arms along with her three siblings, Zain, Yahya, and Dena, when their house came under Israeli bombardment. Trapped under the rubble for eight hours, Suzi’s mother and siblings, all under the age of 10, passed away.
When she was finally pulled out of the rubble by first responders, many thought her to be dead as well. Miraculously, though, Suzi was still breathing. She remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I was sleeping when the bomb hit, and woke up to the house falling on top of us,” she remembered, sitting next to her father Riyad in his rental apartment in Gaza City. “I found myself in between stones, holding my brother’s feet, and calling for my dad, but he couldn’t hear me.”
“Mom, Zain, Yahya, and Dena, all died together,” she recalled, remembering her final moments with her family, when she tried to grab onto Yahya to calm him down as he struggled for breath. After he stopped making a sound, Suzi said she closed her eyes, to shield herself from the falling dust.
When she woke up, she was in a hospital, with only her father left to comfort her. At the time, she had no idea her mother and siblings were dead.
Suzi’s father Riyad told Mondoweiss that Suzi did not speak, eat, or interact with anyone in the first few weeks after the bombing.
After Suzi was discharged from the hospital, Riyad broke the news to his daughter, and took her to the grave of her mother and siblings. He said that he’ll never forget Suzi’s cries that day, as she pleaded to stay by her mother’s side.
“She lost her family—her brothers and sisters, and on top of all of it, her mom. No one can make it up to her,” Riyad said.
“All the gifts and support she gets from people who sympathize with her are nice, but it will not make her forget that she lost everything,” he continued.
“When she asks why her entire family was killed while they were sleeping in her room, no one knows what to tell her. There is no reason.”
Riyad works a full-time job at a hotel in Gaza. When he’s gone for work, Suzi’s entire life is uprooted. She has to stay with one of her relatives—either a cousin, or her grandmother, until her father finishes work.
“It is not easy to be in this situation,” Riyad said. “I had an amazing family. Five beautiful children. I wished and waited for each one of them, and suddenly I found them gone. Why?”
Following the killing of her family, Suzi’s father put her into therapy through a local NGO called “My Child and I – for Kids and Women.”
Manar Silmi was the first psychologist who worked with Suzi after she signed up at the center. She said that the post-traumatic stress that she has witnessed in Suzi is something she has seen in hundreds of children in Gaza that she has treated.
“All the trauma that kids in Gaza experience because of the wars is clearly evident in their behaviors,” she said. “They live in constant fear, and experience night panics, shyness, slurred speech, aggressive behavior, lack of focus, and distraction. These are just some of the things they experience.”
“Unfortunately when these kids get older, these disorders grow with them. Because they live in Gaza, and war is a part of their life, they cannot escape it. They don’t have a chance to forget,” she said.
Silmi said that children in Gaza urgently need continuous and intensive psychological care, but because of a lack of funding for organization like the ones with which she works, the necessary level of care is often impossible to achieve.
Silmi was only able to treat Suzi for three months for a total of 15 sessions before the program she was participating in was cut due to lack of funds. Since Silmi stopped working with her, Suzi has not been able to receive any additional therapy or psychological treatment.
“There are no funds for such projects,” she said, disappointed.
Rimas Abu Dayer (age 10)
Just 50 meters down the street from Suzi Ishkontanta’s house, another story of loss and trauma plagues yet another Palestinian child.
Rimas Abu Dayer, 10, lost her sister Rafeef, 12, last year on May 17th, when her neighborhood block on Al-Wehdeh street was bombed by Israeli forces.
It was afternoon, and ten of Rimas’ immediate and extended family members were sitting in a small courtyard outside their house having lunch. Rimas and her brother Ahmad, 12, had just gone inside the house to call their older brother, Kamel, to come outside for lunch, when a bomb dropped on the family’s house near the courtyard.
Remembering the trauma of losing her family last year, Rimas can barely muster up a few words. “We should have eaten inside,” she said.
“For over 10 minutes, a cloud was raining deadly stones and iron debris on our heads,” Kamil said, recounting the moment the bomb dropped.
“Nothing was visible, only black smoke that filled the air. I called out for my dad and mom, but no one answered,” he said. “I froze. I could not see where to go. Minutes later, the water tanks exploded, and it cleared up some of the smoke.”
When the smoke cleared, Kamel found most of his family dead.
“I found my uncle sitting dead on the couch, as if he had fallen asleep while sitting. My sisters Rafeef and Rimas were hiding behind a door shaking, and the rest of the family members were thrown all over the place,” Kamel said.
Rimas and Rafeef were like twins, Kamel said. With only two years between them, they shared everything. One year on, Rimas is struggling to find her footing in life without her sister.
She holds on to the belongings of her sister that they were able to salvage from the rubble – her notebooks, school bag, and books. They now sit on a shelf in Rimas’ room, a reminder of what she lost.
Before she passed away, Rafeef kept a habit of distributing dates and water to people on the street at sunset in Ramadan. This Ramadan, Rimas wanted to keep her sister’s memory alive, and went out to distribute dates and water to her neighbors.
She said she wanted to keep up her sister’s good deeds until she is able to meet her in heaven one day.
Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union