Gaza’s children are showing increasing signs of trauma two weeks after Israel’s intensive bombardment, say parents and psychiatrists in the small, crowded enclave, with no safe place to hide from the falling bombs and little prospect of respite.
About half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are children. They live under near-constant bombardment and many have been confined to temporary shelters in UN-run schools after fleeing their homes with little food or clean water.
Israel is expected to soon launch a ground attack on Gaza in response to a cross-border attack by Hamas fighters on southern Israel on October 7, which killed more than 1,400 people and took another 210 hostage.
“Children have begun to develop severe trauma symptoms, such as convulsions, bedwetting, anxiety, aggressive behavior, nervousness and not leaving their parents’ sides,” said Gaza psychiatrist Fadel Abu Heen.
So far, more than 4,100 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, including more than 1,500 children, while 13,000 people have been injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Conditions in makeshift shelters at United Nations schools, where more than 380,000 people are encamped hoping to escape the bombardment, are compounding the problem.
There may be as many as 100 people sleeping in each classroom, all of which require constant cleaning. There is little electricity and water, so bathrooms and toilets are very dirty.
“Our children suffer a lot at night. They cry all night, they wet themselves without meaning to and I don’t have time to clean up after them, one after the other,” says Tahreer Tabash, a mother of six children who are hiding in a school.
Even there they are not safe. Such schools have been hit several times, the United Nations says, and Tabash has seen strikes hit nearby buildings. When her children hear about a chair being moved, they jump in fear, she said.
“That lack of a safe place has created a general sense of fear and horror among the entire population, and children are the most affected,” says Abu Heen.
“Some of them reacted immediately and expressed their fears. While they may need immediate intervention, they may be in better shape than the other children who held the horror and trauma,” he said.
One house in Khan Younis, in the south of the enclave, houses about 90 people, including 30 under the age of 18, where they have to sleep in shifts due to lack of space.
“When there is an explosion or when a target is hit nearby, they always scream and they are always scared. We try to calm the young people down and say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just fireworks’. But the older ones understand what is going on.”, says Ibrahim al-Agha, an engineer sheltering in the house.
“They will need a lot of support mentally after this war is over,” Agha said.
However, Gaza’s healthcare system was already overburdened before this month’s war, pushing it to the brink of collapse, and mental health experts have long warned of the terrible toll already being taken on children.
A 2022 report from aid group Save the Children found that the psychosocial well-being of children in Gaza is at an “alarmingly low level” after 11 days of fighting in 2021, leaving half of all children in Gaza in need of support.
Mental health experts in Gaza have said there is no such thing as post-traumatic stress disorder because trauma in the enclave is ongoing, with repeated episodes of armed conflict lasting nearly two decades.
Early Saturday, after an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building in Gaza City, killing many members of the Abo Akr family, a large group of children stood among the people watching as rescuers searched through the rubble for survivors and bodies.
While women nearby wailed and cried, the children stood and watched, their faces invisible.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)