'She screams when someone comes near': Gaza children in trauma

·3-min read
A psychologist plays with Palestinian girl Suzy Eshkuntana in Gaza

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Three weeks since Suzy Eshkuntana was pulled from the rubble of her house, destroyed by an Israeli air strike, the six-year-old girl has barely spoken except to ask for her mother and four siblings who were killed that day.

Her life turned upside down, Suzy and her father are now living with her uncle, who said she barely eats, doesn't sleep well and cannot muster the will to play.

"She asks a lot about her mother, and we tell her mama is in heaven," said Suzy's uncle Ramzi, who said she previously was full of energy.

"She doesn't play, and she screams when someone comes near her."

Half of young people in Gaza - around 500,000 children - could be in need of psychological support after 11 days of fighting in May between the enclave's Hamas rulers and Israel, according to officials from the U.N. children's fund UNICEF.

At least 66 children were among over 250 Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes on Gaza. Two children were among 13 killed in Israel by Gaza militant rocket fire, which sent thousands of Israeli families running for bomb shelters where they cradled their children for hours on end.

Suzy's home was struck in a wave of Israeli attacks on Gaza City on May 16 that Gaza health officials said killed 42 people, including 10 children. [L5N2N306T]

Israel said those strikes targeted an underground tunnel system used by Hamas to transport weapons, and that the houses collapsed as a result of the tunnel network crumbling.

The Israeli military said the civilian casualties were unintentional, and that it does all it can to avoid civilian harm.

Psychologists have paid Suzy regular visits to help her process her trauma. At an art therapy session on Sunday, she sat silently as she and her cousins painted their names on paper.

Alongside her name, Suzy painted two large hearts, in red.

"She was taken from her family's lap, from her mother's lap ... she survived death with a miracle," said psychologist Samar Awad, who oversees Suzy's case.


Around half of Gaza's two million population are under 18. Many carry the trauma of three previous wars and several other violent conflicts fought between Israel and Gaza militant groups since 2008, psychologists said.

Lucia Elmi, UNICEF's special representative in Palestinian territories, said that even before the May fighting, one out of three children was in need of psycho-social support.

"Today, the assessments are ongoing and this figure could reach 500,000 children, so it is increasing," she told reporters.

Depression and insecurity were the most common psychological issues among Gaza children, said Sami Owaida, a psychiatrist in Gaza who specialises in adolescents.

"That means you have no self-esteem. You (feel like) you have nothing. You (feel) helpless, hopeless, worthless," he said.

Owaida said that as a result of trauma, many Gaza children wet their beds, stutter, have nightmares and refuse to eat.

The sense of hopelessness can be overwhelming, Owaida said.

"The question of many children now - they ask when the next war will be ... what will we do, where will we go?"

(Editing by Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Hudson)

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