Vanishing Children of Gaza

By Kasturi Chakraborty 

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors.

Small bodies lay on a cold steel tray at Al-Najjar Hospital in the Gaza Strip, their tiny forms shrouded in white sheets. These were not merely bodies – they were fragments of innocence, young lives snuffed out before they could take their first breaths. These small souls, deprived of the chance to be named, to be celebrated, are reduced to mere statistics. Grief, thick as Gaza’s dust, clogged the air, sticking to my lungs and throat. I had witnessed the aftermath of an Israeli genocide before, but nothing could prepare me for the raw and agonizing reality of those unnamed Palestinian children lying before me. 

The silence in the room was deafening, punctuated only by the distant sounds of a grieving community. At one corner, among all the other dead bodies lay a tiny seven-month-old fetus named Fatema cradled alongside her mother and her brother. Arij Marwan al-Banna, seven months into her pregnancy, had sought refuge in what she believed was a safer haven. She fled to her parents’ house in southern Gaza, heeding Israel’s warning to move away from the northern regions, a choice that countless parents in conflict zones were forced to make. It was a mother’s instinct to protect her yet-to-be-born child and her two young daughters, Sarah and Samya, both under the age of 10. But in the early hours of October 19, 2023, a missile strike killed them all. The steel tray bore witness to a tragedy that transcended political discourse or military strategy. It laid bare the irrevocable cost of Israel’s genocide, the toll exacted on the most vulnerable. I constantly ask myself, even now,

…but why these children?

The children, their identities hidden beneath the anonymity of white fabric, lay side by side like fragile porcelain dolls in a chilling display of vulnerability. I found myself longing to know who these kids were, for the chance to humanize them beyond the confines of a hospital morgue. At that moment, I felt compelled to give them names. Names that were meant to be spoken in moments of happiness and love, names that should have echoed in family homes, not whispered in a grieving space. I named them; not as a gesture of remembrance, but as an act of reclamation – giving back a piece of the identity that occupation of their homeland had stripped away.  

A torrent of emotions flooded my senses — anger at the senselessness of violence, sorrow for the families who would never hold their children again. In the streets of occupied Palestine, motherhood wears a cloak of fear, grief, and anger that simmers beneath the surface. It’s a continuous cycle of preparing for the worst, bracing for loss, and mastering the art of controlling emotions that threaten to spill over at any moment.

I named him Omar

“The situation here is dangerous,” says a Palestinian father from Gaza, his voice weighed down by grief, as he clutches the lifeless body of his unnamed baby boy, wrapped in a white sheet marked with a number. Preferring to stay anonymous, he paints a harrowing picture of his reality. 

The missiles aren’t just far-off sounds; they’re everywhere, bringing the pain and fear that’s closing in on us. Hour by hour, I am consumed by fear, frantically searching every corner of our home for a place where my family might find safety. Yet, in this battlefield we call home, safety, it seems, is a luxury… something we have lost in the chaos of Israeli aggression.

I named her Amani

I just want to smell her, to hold her close one last time,

whispers Mariam, a Palestinian mother who lost her infant too. “It’s as if, for just a moment, she’s with me again,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. Holding her close, she hugs her tiny body tightly. A final embrace. “This hug,” she says, “is my goodbye, my promise to remember her always, even as the world may forget.”

I named them Hayat if it’s a baby girl and Faris if it’s a baby boy

For two days, another Palestinian mother, Farah (name changed), lived in a nightmare of doubt and fear.

I haven’t felt my baby kick at all. I don’t even know if my baby is alive. It’s like… it’s like there’s a silence inside me where there used to be life. I try to hold onto hope, but the silence… It’s overwhelming. It’s the not knowing that’s the most terrifying part.

In the corridors of a local hospital in central Gaza, Farah was faced with a sight no mother should ever see. Before her lay the tiny, lifeless forms of babies. “Their corpses lying in front of me in the hospital…” she whispered, unable to shake the image from her memory. Babies who, like hers, were in danger due to the brutality of war before they could even open their eyes to see the world. “It’s a sight I can never unsee.” 

Her only question was: What could happen to her child if the worst were to come to pass? When asked about the name she had chosen for her unborn child, Farah’s silence spoke volumes. 

A Doctor’s View

In occupied Palestine, the resistance against colonial forces is not just a struggle fought on the streets; it begins much earlier, in the very essence of life itself. It starts in the womb of Palestinian mothers, where the will to resist and the dream of freedom are passed down to the next generation even before they take their first breath. This connection between the act of giving birth and the ongoing struggle for autonomy brings forth the deep-rooted determination of a people fighting for their right to exist, to live in peace, and to claim their homeland.

Life in Gaza is being destroyed in so many ways that it might not be a place people can live in anymore, even if the fighting stops. Speaking to ScoonTv, Dr. Ammar Dwaik, Director General of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), the national and leading Palestinian human rights organization, said, “From the onset of the conflict, Israel has violated numerous international humanitarian laws, engaging in actions that verge on many of the war crimes defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, including actions that amount to genocide. The deliberate targeting of women and children is part of these violations, classified under the killing of civilians, a recognized war crime. Moreover, Israel’s use of deadly force has been indiscriminate, ignoring the international legal principles of distinguishing between combatants and civilians and of proportionality in the use of force.”

The living conditions in Gaza have surpassed the limits of human endurance. The constant threat of death looms large, whether from Israeli bombings, starvation, or disease. Families grieving the loss of loved ones endure extreme psychological trauma and stress.

Imagine the heartbreak of families who, after years of waiting for a child, finally experience joy, only for that child to be taken away by military action. The depth of such sorrow is indescribable. These events are sure to leave enduring psychological scars, particularly on the mothers.

Palestinian Fathers

Amidst this backdrop of resilience, the Palestinian family faces unimaginable hardships that tear at the fabric of their existence. Fathers, who embody the strength and protective love for their families, are subjected to one of the most heart-wrenching tasks imaginable. In the aftermath of violence, they are compelled to gather the remnants of their children’s lives. 

Palestinian fathers are forced to collect pieces of their precious lives in small bags. The scenes of fathers carrying small bags, the final resting place for their children’s fragments, are devastating. Such realities should be alien to parenthood. Instead of nurturing their children’s growth, guiding their steps, and watching them explore the world with wonder, these fathers are forced into a role that no one should ever endure.

“The visuals and footage emerging are overwhelmingly emotional and impactful. I’ve come across videos that drove me to tears, including one of a father who lost his entire family in an Israeli airstrike. With his loved ones still under the rubble, he mourned them, questioning the reason for their deaths and their supposed fault. Equally heartrending is the story of my colleague, Hasan Halasa, from our Gaza office. His life was shattered when an Israeli attack claimed the lives of his mother, wife, and daughter Bisan, who was a medical student, along with his 6-year-old son, Omar. Hasan’s loss of his home and family mirrors the anguish experienced by thousands of families in Gaza,” said Dr. Ammar Dwaik.

Another video that deeply affected me features a two-year-old girl, the sole survivor in her family apart from her aunt, having lost both her hand and leg in the bombing,

There is no food, no water

The ongoing genocide will have long-term effects on generations of Palestinians.

Malnutrition and diseases resulting from water pollution will have adverse health impacts on thousands of children.

Dr. Ammar Dwaik highlights the pressing need for extensive intervention programs and significant financial support to mitigate these challenges. Beyond the physical health concerns, the psychological effects on Palestinians, particularly children, will endure. This situation is compounded by the thousands left permanently disabled, and the countless children orphaned without any surviving family members. There are numerous children whose families remain unidentified. 

Children who manage to survive this war will carry not only the visible scars of physical injuries but also the hidden wounds, remarked MSF (Doctors Without Borders) International Secretary General Christopher Lockyear during the briefing to the 15-member council last week.

Recently in northern Gaza, children took to the streets, protesting against the scarcity of food and water under the Israeli blockade and total siege. The situation has been further aggravated by the UN World Food Programme’s suspension of food assistance.

“Our hearts are heavy with the news of famine in northern Gaza. Initially, we were encouraged by the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) decision on provisional measures, but our hope was short-lived. The decision by 16 Western countries to halt their support to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), even without confirming the validity of Israeli allegations, was disheartening. Rather than enhancing their support and urging Israel to halt its destructive actions, they chose to penalize Palestinians by withdrawing aid at a critical time,” Dr. Ammar Dwaik said.

Give us anything to eat,

pleaded the children. “We want flour,” they cried out, as hunger started to take its toll on their young bodies. The phrase “hunger began to eat our flesh and bodies” echoed around, collectively among the children of Gaza.

A father’s plea for flour — having not seen bread for two months — highlights the acute food shortage. “We haven’t seen bread for two months. Bring us flour.” A mother shares a heart-wrenching story of her daughter, so overwhelmed by hunger that she tried to bite her own hand. 

My daughter tried to eat her hand out of hunger.

Death and displacement

The situation is so bleak that some children have expressed a desire for death, seeing it as a release from their suffering. “There is a repeated displacement, constant fear, and witnessing family members literally dismembered before their eyes,” MSF International Secretary General said last week.

These psychological injuries have led children as young as five to tell us that they would prefer to die.

Others were forced to eat animal feed, leading to stomach pains and illness. Amidst this, a mother from Al-Shifa narrated her harrowing escape to the south, a journey disrupted by sudden airstrikes that took the lives of her companions. “We were bombed suddenly,” she recounted. Her plea, “My baby needs some milk,” was a desperate cry for the basic necessities of life.

Families, forced to flee the famine-hit northern Gaza, speak of leaving everything behind in search of sustenance. Hanan, a young Palestinian girl among them, speaks for many when she says there was nothing left for them there.

The worst part is this heartbreak is not just a private sorrow but a public mourning, shared by the community and felt by anyone who values human dignity. The resilience embedded in the hearts of Palestinian mothers, the determination that begins in the womb, is a powerful force against the adversity they face. According to sources, in Gaza, the main source of support for pregnant women and new mothers comes from the community and their extended family networks. Recently, there has been a positive development as some civil society organizations have begun to offer psychological support specifically to women and children, focusing on those in displacement centers.

The Gaza health ministry reported last week that, since October 7, at least 29,514 Palestinians, among them over 12,000 children, have tragically lost their lives in the Palestinian territory due to the ongoing conflict. 

Why these children?

The haunting question, ‘Why these children?’ still lingers in my thoughts. In wrapping up this narrative on the unnamed children of Gaza, my role as a journalist took on a deeply personal dimension. In naming them, I sought to restore a fraction of their humanity, to ensure that even in death, they don’t vanish, that they were more than just numbers or faceless casualties of a conflict they had no part in. 

It was a small act, but in a place where so much was taken, naming them felt like giving something back. They were more than numbers in the tally of losses. They have not disappeared into history.

They were Omar, Amani, Hayat, and Faris – each a universe of potential, each holding dreams of what could have been.