Deir el-Balah, central Gaza Strip – Within the busy courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the central Gaza Strip, psychologist Mohamed Abushawish has carved a space to provide early psychological assistance to children seeking refuge there.
Beneath Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza, Abushawish provides activities for the children in the hospital’s hallways and open spaces.
Since the first days of the war, about 300 families have sought shelter in the hospital. Numbers have steadily increased following orders from the Israeli authorities for residents of Gaza City in the north to relocate to the southern side of the Strip.
Timidly, the children tentatively join an active circle organised by Abushawish, who gently invites them to come in.
Among them, 10-year-old Hamsa Irshi, with a bright smile, claps along with the other children in the circle. She recounted to Al Jazeera the story of her family’s departure from their home in the al-Daraj neighbourhood of eastern Gaza City.
“Last Friday, my mother and three siblings accompanied me to my uncle’s house in Deir el-Balah,” she said. “However, that same night, Israeli air raids targeted my uncle’s house, killing their entire family.”
For a brief moment, Hamsa fought back tears, then continued.
“We were in a room somewhat distant from the direct strike. My mother sustained minor injuries, and they managed to rescue us from beneath the rubble.”
Of the people who were at her uncle’s house that night, only her mother, three brothers and two cousins survived the bombing. Her three uncles and their families were killed. Hamsa’s father and other siblings are still in Gaza City.
Despite her shock, Hamsa actively takes part in the mental support activities, talking about her fear of war. She says she is desperate for it to end, stating: “I don’t feel safe”.
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Malak Khatab, who normally lives in the Deir el-Balah camp, expressed her delight after taking part in the activities. She said the children yearn for more such activities to help lift their spirits.
Malak recounted a horrifying night from a week ago when she, along with her family, were terrified by the bombing of their neighbour’s house. She described how they were abruptly awakened by falling debris, followed by a huge explosion. Malak found herself trapped under rubble, her father frantically trying to keep her safe. Civil defence teams later rescued them.
The Khatab family’s home suffered extensive damage from the bombing, as did other nearby homes. Consequently, they were forced to seek refuge at the hospital, where they now sleep on the ground. There are no more beds.
‘My father’s voice faded away’
Nearby in the hospital yard, 12-year-old Anas al-Mansi is lying on a mattress on the ground, seemingly uninterested in the children’s activities unfolding around him. After initial resistance, Anas eventually agreed to speak to Al Jazeera following a persuasive conversation with his uncle.
He explained his lack of interest in the activities, saying: “I don’t have a desire to do anything.” Then, Anas recounted the tragic loss of his father and aunt in an air attack on their home in Deir el-Balah a week ago.
He described a night when they were sound asleep and, suddenly, a massive explosion shattered the peace. Anas couldn’t recall the specific details, except for his father’s final words, instructing them to recite “Shahadatain” (declaration of faith).
“My father’s voice slowly faded away, and I found myself buried under debris and dust. I called my father, but he didn’t answer,” Anas said. “I knew he might be killed.”
As he spoke, Anas bared his back, revealing a multitude of bruises and wounds. The family was trapped beneath the rubble for a period before being rescued.
“My brother also suffered severe back injuries, leaving him unable to walk, and my mother is still in the hospital after she got injured in her legs.”
Anas said he wishes for a swift end to the war but added he has no desire to return to a semblance of a normal life.
“There is no life,” he said firmly.
The hospital’s mental health unit has made a special commitment to support these children, Abushawish said. Many of them have relatives who are wounded or deceased, or have been displaced and are now taking shelter in the hospital, all of which have taken a significant toll on their psychological wellbeing, he added.
Abushawish said the children are also suffering from distressing psychological and physical symptoms as a result of the trauma.
“These symptoms, such as abdominal pain, headaches, foot pain, involuntary urination and rapid heartbeats, were direct consequences of the relentless bombings in the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Abushawish added that many children are exhibiting clear signs of post-traumatic stress after losing their parents and being rescued from rubble after days stuck beneath it.
“These were harrowing and overwhelming events that exceeded what children, the most vulnerable members of society, should endure,” he said.
“The therapeutic activities serve as crucial initial psychological aid and swift intervention to alleviate the traumatic effects on the children, particularly in the context of the ongoing conflict.
“There is no immediate horizon for a near end to the war. Therefore these activities help them withstand, endure and adapt to what is happening around them,” Abushawish concluded.