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The children of Gaza

Some of the lives lost in a conflict the UN says has turned Gaza into a graveyard for children (The Independent)
Some of the lives lost in a conflict the UN says has turned Gaza into a graveyard for children (The Independent)

Before the war began, Gaza’s streets teemed with children. Roughly half of the two million people who call the narrow strip of land home are under 18. At the weekend, and when school was out, the beaches, parks and playgrounds were full of the sounds of children laughing and playing.

But Gaza’s children have had to endure so much in their short lives. A 15-year-old will have lived through five wars in their lifetime, including the current conflict. Many have been displaced several times because their homes were destroyed by bombing.

Even so, they had never experienced destruction like this.

Since the start of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, more than 7,000 children have been killed in airstrikes, artillery and mortar fire. That number only accounts for those who have been identified, and many more likely lie beneath the rubble. Thousands have been injured. The United Nations has described Gaza as “a graveyard for thousands of children,” and “the most dangerous place in the world to be a child.”

Lost in those unfathomable numbers are the faces, the names, the lives, and the moments of joy those children brought. Here are some of their stories.

The confident athlete: Siwar Almadhoun, 13

Siwar was tall for her age, and she put it to good use. Basketball was her passion. She played whenever she could – at school, in her own time, in the summer – and she won trophies. There’s a video of her, taken after winning a basketball tournament, showing her dancing on a big stage in front of a crowd while confetti sprays around her and music blares. The whole team jumps up and down with their medals. She used to wear an old basketball jersey from a Florida high school all the time because it had a hoop and a ball on the front. She loved volleyball, too – another sport where her height gave her an advantage.

Siwar Almadhoun, 13 (Supplied)
Siwar Almadhoun, 13 (Supplied)

Siwar was much more independent than most girls her age. “She didn’t care. She would go out and run errands on her own, she would go to the beach and swim. She was always doing things, she wasn’t shy at all,” says her uncle, Hani Almadhoun.

She was the most outgoing of all of her siblings; despite only being 13, she brimmed with confidence. Hani remembers her always wanting to help her parents.

Siwar loved to picnic. If she had a dollar in her hand she would go to a nearby restaurant with her girlfriends where they would order the same meal every time: a shawarma sandwich, pickles, a corn salad and fries. It came in a clamshell container.

She was everybody’s favourite, everybody was her friend

Siwar was a middle child, and was fiercely protective of her younger brothers and sisters. She loved looking after her younger cousins when they came to visit, too, Hani’s own daughters used to spend all of their time with her when they visited Gaza from their home in the US.

“Wherever my girls go, she goes with them. They were sort of like her shadow,” he says. “She was everybody’s favourite, everybody was her friend.”

The football obsessive: Omar Almadhoun, 9

Omar was crazy about football. He used to fight with his father, Majid, about who was the greatest player in the world. Omar was certain it was Cristiano Ronaldo, his father thought it was Karim Benzema. They were both Real Madrid fans, so Lionel Messi did not enter into the discussion.

Omar Almadhoun, 9 (Supplied)
Omar Almadhoun, 9 (Supplied)

Omar spent most of last year obsessing over the World Cup, but he couldn’t buy any of the jerseys or merchandise worn by his favourite players in Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel since 2007. So he asked his uncle, Hani, to help.

Hani went to the store and got him some goalkeeper gloves, a football and a bag, which he sent to Gaza with someone he knew. Omar was thrilled.

“He wasn’t even a goalkeeper. He played offence. He just wanted to show off,” Hani says.

But Omar took it seriously. He was attending a summer football camp so he could practice his skills.

Read more on this special report: We couldn’t write obituaries for all the children killed in Gaza, so we marked the lives of just a few

When he wasn’t playing football, Omar liked to stay close to his dad. He would hang around him in his store, where he sold general household goods. He was always trying to get his dad’s attention, which made work difficult.

He tried to stand out and it wasn’t easy for him to do that, because he doesn’t have an aggressive personality or a dominating presence

“He tried to stand out and it wasn’t easy for him to do that, because he doesn’t have an aggressive personality or a dominating presence,” Hani says.

His uncle remembers him as a sweet and reliable kid.

“If you asked him to do something, he would. He’s the kind you could rely on,” he says.

Omar was particularly close with his grandfather. On the night that he was killed, Hani says, his grandfather had a dream about young Omar. He awoke in the middle of the night. Not 10 minutes later, Omar was dead.

The family troublemaker: Ali Almadhoun, 7

Ali was the troublemaker of the family. He was small, but he had an athlete’s physique, and he was always fighting. His father used to joke it was a full-time job having to go around to his neighbours’ houses to answer for Ali’s latest fist fight. His uncle, Hani, says his father was just the same when he was a kid.

Ali Almadhoun, 7 (Supplied)
Ali Almadhoun, 7 (Supplied)

No one could figure out where he got his energy from. When the family would go to the beach, he would always disappear out of sight.

“He was the hardest to have him listen to instructions. He would go crazy and run off into danger and he would not listen. He was very stubborn,” his uncle Hani says.

But he was the youngest of the family, so he was doted on by everyone: cousins, grandparents, parents, older siblings. Ali got away with so much by flashing his cheeky smile.

He was inseparable from his dad. He would follow him everywhere.

Ali, Omar and Siwar were killed in an Israeli airstrike on 24 November, together with their older sister Riman and their parents Majid and Safa. They were killed just an hour before the first ceasefire of the conflict began, in their family home, where they had been sheltering for 40 days.

The strike would have killed more, but half of the family was visiting Majid and Hani’s sister in hospital. She had been injured by a separate airstrike and was receiving treatment. The family stayed there overnight because they were worried about snipers on the way home.

It took several days for the family to recover all of their bodies. Omar was found first. His body had been thrown so far from the house by the explosion that it was found by a stranger, outside of their search area, some 20 metres away. A day later they found his father, Majid, under the rubble. Three days later they found Ali, his mother Safa, and his sister Riman.

The budding YouTuber: Ghina Alkrunz, 8

Ghina desperately wanted to be a YouTube star. At just eight years old, she was already making videos that demonstrated her humour, irreverence and confidence. In one that she never got to post, she gesticulates like a seasoned presenter as she shows the viewer around her home. She takes us into the kitchen and shows us her favourite chocolate doughnuts her mother has made for her. Ghina was always making videos like this, says her uncle, Mahmoud Alkrunz. Whenever she saw a microphone, she would grab it. You never knew when you were going to get a song or presentation.

Ghina Alkrunz, 8 (Supplied)
Ghina Alkrunz, 8 (Supplied)

“She wanted to document her daily life and show people her sisters and brothers and her toys,” he says.  “She had a lot of dreams, but most of all she wanted to be a famous YouTuber or maybe a journalist.”

Ghina was incredibly smart, too; she always got high marks at school. Being the youngest in the family meant everyone looked after her, and her strong personality ensured she had a ton of friends. Ghina was close with her aunts and uncles, so Mahmoud got to spend a lot of time with her. He used to take her to the local pool and taught her how to swim. It was their special time together.

“She was so attached to me, she used to call me ‘Mahmoud Pool’ because we always went swimming together.”

Ghina was killed in an Israeli airstrike on the building where she was sheltering with her family in Rafah, southern Gaza, on 23 October, and first reported by Martyrs of Gaza. The family had fled from bombing further north in search of safety. After her death, her mother told Mahmoud about the day she died.

She had a lot of dreams, but most of all she wanted to be a famous YouTuber or maybe a journalist

“She told us that Ghina was asking her mum what they were having for lunch. They were not eating every day because there is not enough food in Gaza, so sometimes they would get by on tea and biscuits. She was so hungry,” he says.

That day, though, her mom was cooking one of Ghina’s favourites: beans with tomato soup. Ghina used to call it “red food” because of its deep red colour. She was deliriously happy at the prospect of the meal. As her mother stirred the pot on the stove, she was jumping around shouting “Red food! Red food! Red food!”

Just minutes later, she was killed by an airstrike that collapsed the building. Her body was found under the rubble 24 hours later. Her mother was lucky to survive. Ghina died hungry.

The outdoors adventurer: Omar Alkrunz, 13

Omar loved video games and anything related to video games. He planned to become a computer engineer when he grew up so he could get paid to play games (his other dream was to become a football player).

“He always wanted to buy the newest iPad and use the newest laptop to play the games,” his uncle Mahmoud says.

Omar Alkrunz, 13 and his sister Ghina (Supplied)
Omar Alkrunz, 13 and his sister Ghina (Supplied)

He liked the football games the most. He would play them for hours on end.

Omar loved the outdoors, too. He would go on campaign trips with his grandparents and his uncle Mahmoud to the beach. They would lay out a mat on the ground and barbecue food on a campfire. Together they’d make kites and fly them at the beach.

Omar used to make everyone laugh by making animal noises. He could mimic a frog and an owl almost perfectly.

In the last few days of his life, Omar was stricken by grief. On 20 October, his grandparents, uncles and cousin were killed in an Israeli airstrike. His uncle, Mahmoud, spoke to him several times over the next few days and he could never remember him being as sad and dejected.

“He said he was tired of this war and he wanted to go out of Gaza. He wanted to go somewhere where he could not hear bombings all night and live with his family in a safe place,” Mahmoud says.

He said he loved his country a lot and he has good memories here but he doesn’t want to live in a war any more

“He said he loved his country a lot and he has good memories here but he doesn’t want to live in a war any more,” he adds.

Three days after his grandparents were killed, Omar suffered the same fate. He died alongside his sister Ghina.

Ghina and Omar’s father, Muhammad, worked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). His job for the last month had been helping people displaced from other parts of Gaza find shelter from the bombs in UN schools.

“He was working to help people that were fleeing and keep them safe,” Mahmoud says. “But after all that, he couldn’t save his family.”

The future scholar: Mahmoud Othman, 14

Mahmoud, Omar and Ghina’s cousin, had the mind of an engineer. He would take apart his toys and other items around the house just to rebuild them. He was especially fascinated by electronics.

Mahmoud Othman, 14 (Supplied)
Mahmoud Othman, 14 (Supplied)

Mahmoud wanted to travel later in his life, but for a specific reason. He wanted to get the best possible education he could, and so was talking to his uncle, also named Mahmoud, who lives in Turkey, about travelling there to study.

“He was asking me to help find him a good university,” Mahmoud says.

When war broke out, Mahmoud took it upon himself to be there for everyone else. Being the oldest sibling in his family, he grabbed the responsibility with both hands. He would call his uncle Mahmoud and reassure him that he would look after his parents.

“He would tell me not to worry about them. He said they are safe, and I can help them with whatever they need,” Mahmoud says. “He wanted me to know that everything is fine.”

Mahmoud was killed alongside his mum, uncle and his grandparents.

The stylish teen: Joud Abdul Aziz Abushaban, 14

Joud Abul Aziz Abushaban wanted to travel, just like her father did while attending school in the US. She was developing her own sense of self and style and had asked her father for a new pair of earrings shortly before the 7 October attacks began.

“Her dad bought it for her and she was enjoying it for a couple of weeks,” Adil Abushaban, Joud’s uncle, told The Independent.

Joud Abu Shaaban, 14 (Supplied)
Joud Abu Shaaban, 14 (Supplied)

Born in 2009 during the middle of another conflict between Hamas and Israel, Joud’s upbringing had been defined by the war around her.

Despite that, none of it stopped her from being a “typical kid” – attending school and spending time with her family – especially her older brother, Yousef.

“She was full of life and wanted to enjoy life,” Mr Abushaban said.

But Joud’s life was cut short on 18 October after a missile hit the Abushaban’s home.

After hearing Israeli bomb strikes, Joud, her brother, younger sister and parents were hiding out in the basement of their home. But when a blast hit the metal door at the top of the stairs, shrapnel went flying striking several family members – including Joud.

The cheeky ninja: Farid Sallout, 12

Farid Sallout had to be brave his entire, short, life. He experienced war even before he was born: as his mother carried him in her womb, Israeli jets were striking Gaza during 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defence. The sound of bombs were among the first noises he ever heard.

Farid Sallout, 12, and his brother Qossay, 14 (Supplied)
Farid Sallout, 12, and his brother Qossay, 14 (Supplied)

Farid was born with a significant facial deformity which could not be treated in Gaza, but it didn’t stop him from being a fun-loving kid.

Farid would spend a lot of his free time hanging around in his father’s barber shop making mischief and chatting to customers. His father hoped he would take over the business one day with his two brothers.

His favourite cartoon featured a ninja and he loved to run around with a toy sword, dressed in all black. Farid loved toy cars and could never have enough of them in his reach.

In 2016, when he was just five-years-old, something amazing happened. The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund raised money and arranged for him to travel to Shreveport, Louisiana, to undergo complex surgery to treat his deformity. His parents weren’t permitted by Israel to leave the Gaza Strip, so his grandmother, Hajjar Abusilmi, accompanied him.

He was just so playful, and he was always trying to grab your attention

Sara Rammouni, a Palestinian-American who hosted Farid when he came to the US, distinctly remembers the minutes after he awoke from the 14-hour surgery, during which time doctors effectively rebuilt his skull and moved his eye sockets around.

She and other doctors rushed to help him go to the bathroom, but his grandmother intervened.

“Grandma is like ‘No, no, no. We don’t baby our kids. They have to be brave. We don’t know what they’re in for in the future,”’ Ms Rammouni says.

Farid had to be gutsy, but he did it with a grin.

“He always had a smile,” Ms Rammouni says. “He was just so playful, and he was always trying to grab your attention.”

When he was recovering in Shreveport, Farid ate a lot of his favourite food: fries. But he didn’t like the American kind, his grandmother cut potatoes roughly and deep fried them. They were thicker and greasier than a french fry, and they tasted like home.

The quiet protector: Qossay Sallout, 14

Qossay would later make the same journey to Shreveport that his younger brother Farid had made a year earlier. He, too, was born with the same facial deformity and travelled to the US for treatment.

Qossay was shy. Older than Farid, he understood more about what was going on – he knew the procedure would be long and painful.

Qossay Sallout, 14 (Supplied by the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund)
Qossay Sallout, 14 (Supplied by the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund)

“He saw what his brother had to go through. So I felt like he knew more of what’s about to happen,” Rammouni says.

Both boys had an identical open spot in their skulls where there was no bone. It was potentially life-threatening.

“Being an active little boy, if anything were to hit that, it basically would just have to go through skin and then it’s in the brain. Where the rest of us have a casing, he didn’t have that in a large area,” said Dr Jason Dashow, a cleft and craniofacial surgery fellow, following Qossay’s surgery.

“Now there is bone placed across that area that will grow in, just like his brother. When they’re playing games and they get bumped in the back of the head, like any kid does, they’re now protected,” he told the Louisiana State University Health publication.

Qossay’s time in Shreveport was filled with medical appointments. Rammouni was there to chaperone and look after him and his grandmother, as she did before. He was not in the US for as long as his little brother, so Rammouni didn’t get to know Qossay as well. But she noticed that he was more mature than most kids his age.

“You would never imagine that he was eight years old. I felt these kids had to grow up quicker than most. They didn’t get to actually live the childhood out,” she says.

I felt these kids had to grow up quicker than most

That constant fear and preparation for the worst was always on the Sallout family’s minds. Rammouni remembers jokingly asking Qossay and Farid’s mother why she had so many kids when the situation in Gaza was so bad.

“There was not a hesitation when the mom said, ‘Half of our kids don’t survive, so we have to keep having kids,’” Rammouni says.

“The way she said that was just like, they know that there’s gonna be another war, and there’s a possibility that these kids will not make it.”

Those words would prove to be prophetic. Farid and Qossay were killed by an Israeli airstrike on 8 November in Khan Younis that also took the life of their grandparents, their aunt and uncle, and their brother Qassim.