Ann Paq /

Women in Gaza bear psychological scars of war

Fearing for their lives and their children, Palestinian women are suffering from severe mental health issues

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — For Hayat Abu Amer, the search for food has become a dangerous task under Israeli bombardment. The 47-year-old mother of 14 has regularly risked her life in search of sustenance, until her family was forced to flee the eastern Gaza neighborhood of Shujaiya on Sunday.

Like many other families in the besieged strip, they survived the first days of the Israeli military offensive on supplies they had stored for Ramadan, but when that ran out, Abu Amer sought help from a charity at the Maghazi refugee camp.

"My husband begged me to stay home, but I still went," Abu Amer says. "Each time, I said goodbye to them as if it could have been the last time we saw each other."

More than 1,031 Palestinians have been killed, and another 6,000 injured, since Israel's military operation into Gaza began on July 8. Forty-three Israeli soldiers have also been killed, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

In Gaza, some women tell their children that the explosions are just fireworks, and the war is just a game. Abu Amer, meanwhile, watches to ensure her children do not wander into a morgue or the hospital, as the family finds temporary refuge in a small garden behind Shifa hospital.

At the hospital, Dr Muna el-Farra coordinated the flow of patients following the bombardment of Shujayea, which killed at least 120 Palestinians and injured hundreds of others. Dozens of dead bodies have been removed from the rubble in the neighborhood.

Shifa has received a surge of patients, but the CT scanner is not working — and any moment now, doctors expect an influx of patients for basic diagnostics and treatment, Farra explains. As the health chair of the Red Crescent Society in Gaza, she is responsible for coordinating emergency response and managing a hotline that offers psychological support.

"We receive many, many, many phone calls about children in horror. Terrified, anxious children. Their mothers do not know how to calm them down. Our psychologists recommend basic relaxation techniques to start with; something as simple as deep breaths can help," Farra says.

If you ask Palestinian women in Gaza how they manage during times of conflict and what they view as their chief responsibility, most will speak of their children. Fida al-Araj, a psychologist and program coordinator at the Women's Affairs Technical Committee, a Palestinian organization that seeks to eliminate gender discrimination, says many fear for their children's lives. She also worked with women after the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008-2009.

"The kids used to complain: My mother is smothering me, I can't go anywhere, she is too frightened for me." I worked with people who were from the buffer zones. They had to evacuate their houses, just like the inhabitants of Shujayea this time, under the Israeli shelling," says Araj, noting the trauma can manifest over time through a variety of symptoms, from parental withdrawal to clinginess.

Parents often neglect their own personal needs to ensure their families are safe, although some still try to maintain a sense of normalcy.

On the day she fled Shujayea, one woman recalls awakening at 6 a.m., taking a bath, applying her makeup and donning her nicest clothes; her friend joked: "Don't let the journalists see you." Another woman packed all her clothes into two big suitcases before she left her house in northern Gaza. "I might have to lose my house, but at least I can save my wardrobe," she later told a surprised friend.

With many parts of Gaza difficult for ambulances to reach due to heavy Israeli bombardment, Farra says her hotline was also developed to help families address daily health necessities. "Because of the severity of the shelling, patients call to find out how to handle simple health situations. If possible, our teams visit the patients and distribute basic medical kits."

In one case, Farra recalls, two young men and their mother had to evacuate their home in Shujayea. The mother, who was diabetic, had forgotten her insulin at the house, so Farra's team retrieved it and brought it back to the hospital. "Without one dose of insulin, she could have gone into hyperglycemia and died," Farra explains, noting chronically ill patients are often forgotten in times like this, as focus shifts towards the injured.

On a typical day, Farra arrives at the health center early in the morning, leaves around 7 p.m. and takes the Red Crescent car to distribute food to those in need — part of her work as director of the Middle East Children's Alliance. The alliance visits hundreds of families who were forced to leave their homes, or who cannot afford food.

In some homes, families sit in agony, mourning the dead. Many are crowded onto mattresses on the floor, tears rolling down their faces.

"I am so, so sad. He was my favorite, my most beloved, the youngest one. This missile was waiting especially for him," cries the mother of Muhammed Hammoud, a 20-year-old who was killed in the empty streets of Beit Lahiya.

"He just took his final high school exam, we were still waiting for his results… Who can bring my son back, who?"

At the entrance to their home, an elderly woman sits on a plastic chair, guarding the doors. Subhiya Hammoud, the slain man's aunt, is a native of Beit Lahiya and has seen many rulers pass through the area.

"I saw the British, the Egyptians, the Israelis. We had Hamas and Fatah fighting, we had three wars from the Israelis. I am tired of wars," she says. "During the British times, it was enough that we hid under the trees; there were no airplanes bombing people. Now they have airplanes, they shoot one missile and a whole family disappears … I just want the Israelis to leave me in peace."

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