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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

‘I wake up screaming’: Child trauma in Gaza deepens after bloody protests

Plagued by conflict, injury and loss, the enclave’s youth are its silent victims

14-year-old Riham Qudaih and her father Ismael in their family home in Khan Younis in Gaza, June 6, 2018. Florian Neuhof / The National
14-year-old Riham Qudaih and her father Ismael in their family home in Khan Younis in Gaza, June 6, 2018. Florian Neuhof / The National

In a modest house on a sandy patch of land near the border fence separating Gaza from Israel, fourteen-year-old Riham Qudaih stands next to her wounded father's bed as she describes the night terrors that plague her daily.

“I see blood, injured people, ambulances. I hear the sound of rockets. I have these nightmares every night, and I wake up screaming,” she says.

Riham speaks little, and when she does her teenage voice is awkwardy out of kilter with her diminutive looks. Her slight frame belies her age, and her stooped posture give her the appearance of someone who does not want to be there.

Her father Ismael has been confined to his bed, where he lies in agony after an Israeli sniper shattered his leg with an explosive round on March 30. The Palestinian teenager says her nightmares began after his shooting.

March 30 marked the first day of ongoing weekly protests in Gaza. Every Friday, Palestinians come to the border fence to demand the right to return to lands they were forcibly displaced from during the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel. The mass demonstrations have been met with a violent response from Israeli border troops, who have used explosive ammunition and tear gas on the crowds. So far, over 120 protesters have been killed, and many thousands wounded.

One of them is Mr Qudaih, who lives on the outskirts of Khan Younis, a decrepit city in the south of the Gaza Strip. The family home is only half a kilometre from the border fence, where he was hit in the leg by an explosive round that caused severe damage to the limb. His slow recovery has prevented him from resuming his work as a plastic waste collector – cutting the family's sole source of income – and weighed heavily on his four children.

“The children are very affected. They see the father lying on the bed, not being able to work,” his wife Manara says.

Riham, who has the closest bond to her father, has suffered the most. Plagued by the daily nightmares, she has also been unable to focus at school, and her grade average has dropped from an A to C-, her mother says.

Child trauma, already rampant in the coastal enclave, has become worse since the protests began, according to aid agencies. A study by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that 56 per cent of Gazan children surveyed suffered from traumatic nightmares before March 30. A month later, this figure had risen to 60 per cent.

Riham has experienced such nightmares before. In the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, the last of three major military conflicts in the narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean coast, she was wounded by an airstrike, and the family was forced to flee their home. The wound in her leg gradually healed, and she is now able to walk again properly. Her trauma abated after the war, only for it to return when her father was shot again this year.

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Read more:

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In Gaza's Al Shifa hospital, paralysed protesters left without hope

'Why did you leave me?' Family mourns baby killed by Israeli tear gas

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The 2014 war took a heavy toll on Gaza's young. More than 500 children were killed, and over 3,000 were wounded – nearly a third of which were left with permanent disability. Hundreds of thousands were traumatised, according to UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children.

“Children are the weakest part of the community. They are the most sensitive, and they have a lot of issues related to trauma,” Hassan Zeyada, a psychologist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, says.

“They are ave experienced war. They have not heard about it from their grandparents, they have been under shelling, lost family members, friends, classmates, and have had their homes destroyed.”

The spectre of renewed conflict is ever-present, and has ingrained itself into the psyche of the children.

"I am always afraid of renewed aggression on Gaza. It will never be calm here," says Riham, who says she would like to leave the Gaza Strip.

Even in periods of calm the constant threat of violence and the economic deprivation resulting from an ongoing blockage of Gaza is undermining the mental health of its children.

Mr Qudaih used to farm, but was shot in three separate incidents by Israeli border guards as he tended his land near the fence. After that, he gave up on farming and became a garbage collector. He was one of the lucky ones, 44 per cent of Gazans have no work at all.

In a house that sits along a narrow alley in the centre of Khan Younis, 31-year-old Ghadeer Abu Jamous wears black garments and her face is covered as she observes a three-month-long mourning period for her husband Jehad.

Sitting in the living room of the family home, the widow recounts how her husband was shot in the head during the demonstrations at the fence on the same day Mr Qudaih was felled by an Israeli bullet. He had taken Ghadeer and his four children to the protests, but became separated from his family. A few hours later, his wife had to identify his lifeless body at the local hospital.

The death of their father struck the children like a hammer blow. The two boys, 10-year-old Motasem and seven-year-old Zuhair, sit despondently in the dark room with bare walls and grubby mattresses.

Nine-year-old Istabraq, sits listlessly next to her mother. It is only when she hears a mention of her father that she perks up, flashing a bright smile. The three-year-old Ghazal is too young to comprehend her loss, and stumbles cheerfully around the room.

The children often look at the pictures of their father on his phone, Ghadeer says. They play the same games he played with him, and eat his favourite food. His absence affects the children every hour of every day.

"They are scared and insecure. They scream all night, and shout and talk in their sleep," says Ghadeer, who has no income and is struggling to provide for her children.

The Gazan youngsters have been deprived of all sense of security. Worse, the hope of youth has disappeared. Instead, they are fearful of their futures.

“I have a lot of of nightmares about how my father died,” says Istabraq, another of Gaza’s young and traumatised victims. “I'm scared a war will happen.”