For Children of Gaza, Scars to Last a Lifetime

Many Fear That Young Will Suffer Psychological Effects of War for Decades

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 26, 2009; Page A05

GAZA CITY, Jan. 25 -- One by one, the seventh-graders rose from their old wooden desks and, in toneless voices that betrayed neither sadness nor surprise, spoke of horrible things.

"A missile targeted my relatives," said Adhem Abdulal, a tall boy with a bright grin. "My cousin got shrapnel in his leg. Another cousin got shrapnel in his head."

"The F-16 bombed my uncle's house. His stomach got ripped out, and he died," said Mohammed Abu Hassan, fidgeting with the zipper on his red leather jacket.

"Our house was burned by the shelling," said Othman Abu Ghaioon, his dark brown hair framing a pale, expressionless face. "The top two floors are destroyed, but the ground floor got fixed. There are 20 of us there now."

When they had finished reciting their experiences during three weeks of war, the teacher dismissed the class and the students tore from the room, giggling and pushing as they began a game of soccer on the school's asphalt courtyard.

In the Gaza Strip, where half the population is under the age of 16, the young bear some of the war's deepest scars. At least 280 children were killed, nearly as many as the number who died in Gaza during the entire second intifada, or uprising, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights. More than 1,000 others were wounded.

Even the children who escaped physical injury face the psychological consequences of having lived under near-constant bombardment for 22 days and nights. A week into a fragile cease-fire, mental health experts, human rights advocates and parents say they worry that this generation of Palestinian children will suffer the effects of the war for decades to come.

"We in Gaza are 1.5 million people in need of immediate psychotherapy," said Issam Younis, director general of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights. "But the children especially. They have experienced severe trauma. They should cry. They should shout. But the way they are talking about this tragedy, it's not normal."

Younis said he reassured his own son early in the conflict that children were not being targeted by the Israeli warplanes and that he was safe from the missiles that crashed down around their home. But 6-year-old Mohammed soon started seeing images on television of tiny bodies and small, bloodied faces that he recognized as belonging to children his age.

"You're a liar," Younis said his son told him angrily.

Later in the war, when such televised images had become ubiquitous, Younis said he would try to change the channel, but Mohammed would not let him.

"I'm not afraid, Daddy," he said.

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