Without urgent aid and support, what kind of future awaits the children of Gaza?
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One of the cruelest ironies of war is that they are never started by children; yet it is children who suffer the most.
Across the world, wars kill, maim, abuse, terrorise and recruit children. Children with names, playmates, and parents who adore them.
Over 4100 children in Gaza have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Credit: Getty
No child should be part of war.
Some of the faces I have come across as a humanitarian worker never fade. Lamia was 10 when I met her in a hospital in Baghdad 20 years ago. She had nightmares about missile strikes. Manzoor, a 14-year-old from Afghanistan, loved football but could no longer play when I met him, after losing his legs to land mines. His mother describes war as a funeral in slow motion.
When you visit Gaza, the reality hits you fast, and it hits you hard. The moment you set foot in the city, you see destruction and junk concrete material left from previous conflicts – sometimes all that remains of places where homes and schools once stood. Imagine what this means for children who live among this rubble and whose lives are often about moving from one crisis to the other.
Such memories leave deep and unfathomable scars on young people: there is only so much young minds and hearts can take, literally.
Still, we see newborns in incubators while above them, missiles whiz past. Children injured and maimed.
For the children who survive, their dreams are often wiped out, but their nightmares and suffering stays forever.
To date, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have killed more than 11,000 people and injured a further 25,000 in just four weeks. Of those killed, over 4100 are children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. About 1250 children are missing, presumed to be buried under the rubble of bombed buildings, according to the United Nations. Some of them are likely to be still alive, unable to be rescued. UNICEF says Gaza has become a graveyard for thousands of children.
The UN also reports that 258 school buildings have sustained damage, meaning any hope of education now or into the future has been severely and catastrophically impacted.
This week, the World Health Organization said 20 of Gaza’s hospitals were now entirely out of action, with operations at Gaza’s largest hospital, Al Shifa, suspended after its fuel ran out.
Now, at least one of those babies in incubators, who rely on electric ventilators to breathe, has had their name added to Gaza’s growing death toll.
The Israeli government says that during the attack on October 7, an armed Palestinian group took about 30 children as hostages. No words can truly capture the suffering a young hostage goes through. Their urgent and unconditional release should be a priority. So too should be the release of the 500 to 700 Palestinian children the UN estimates are being held under Israeli military detention each year. All children are equal.
War reconfigures lives and landscapes. It turns nurseries and neighbourhoods into killing fields and mass graveyards where innocent children are trapped and buried beneath.
At the same time, the resilience of the children I have met for one reason or another while in Gaza was striking.
When I met Omsiyat, a 12-year-old resident of Gaza in 2009, she asked me a simple but disarming question: “Why are children made to suffer in wars?”
Yet, there was also a sliver of hope. I watched Omsiyat and her young friends pick up burnt books and crayons from the rubble of their partly charred primary school. Another girl broke out in a huge smile when she spotted a colourful poster she had drawn in the wreckage. She was happy to get it back, she told me, but sad that the bombs had burned part of it.
Compassion for children and fellow human beings, and talking meaningfully about ceasefire, peace and justice are the first steps to stop a war.
Under international law, six violations against children are recognised. These include armed forces and rebel groups recruiting children, the killing and maiming of children, the abduction of children, sexual violence and sexual abuse of children, attacking schools and hospitals where children are present, and the denial of humanitarian access.
In any conflict, these laws must be respected and the mounting cases of child casualties should be a wake-up call for us all. A baby dying in an incubator that has been denied the electricity it needs to deliver oxygen is a vote of no confidence against humanity. It is a stain on our collective conscience.
For children, stopping war means stopping them from being killed, or maimed or permanently injured – physically and mentally. It means stopping them from dying from dehydration or starvation or a lack of medical care.
A ceasefire means getting war-wounded and displaced children clean water, food, life-saving humanitarian assistance, emotional care and, with this, dignity.
In Palestine and Israel, an unconditional and urgent ceasefire is the only way to give humanity, and children, a chance.
Dr Unni Krishnan is the global humanitarian director at Plan International.
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