The sounds of war fill Mutasim al-Shinbari’s heart with fear.
“Whenever Mutasim hears sirens or aircraft, he flees into a corner screaming ‘a missile, a missile,’” Hadeel, his mother, said.
Aged 4, Mutasim has already experienced a huge amount of grief.
During a major Israeli attack on Gaza in May 2021, his uncle Ibrahim – an imam – was killed while heading home from a mosque.
Mutasim was very close to his uncle Ibrahim. One day after the killing, Mutasim was at the local mosque in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza.
He expected to see his uncle leading prayers and could not understand why Ibrahim did not turn up.
Mutasim did not know that he would never see his uncle again.
Since that horrible day, Mutasim has been having nightmares. He constantly wets the bed.
He has lost his appetite. “I give him my phone to distract him [with YouTube videos], so that I can try to spoon-feed him,” his mother said.
While the family wants to enroll him in a local kindergarten, they have not yet done so. Mutasim cannot bear to be away from his mother.
Almost exactly two years after losing his uncle, Mutasim had to endure another large-scale Israeli assault on Gaza.
In the early stages of last month’s attack, Israel flattened a building across the road from the home of Mutasim and his family. Mutasim was extremely frightened; his mother did her best to calm him down by hugging him tight.
The only respite came when the family learned that a ceasefire had been reached. Hadeel, Mutasim’s mother, told him that a truce – hudna in Arabic – was a good thing.
“When I told him that a hudna was in place, he jumped up from his bed with happiness,” Hadeel said. “He kept repeating the word. ‘Hudna, hudna, hudna.’”
In a recent article for Le Monde diplomatique, Yasser Abu Jamei from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme explained how Israel’s latest attack came at a time when children were still traumatized from previous attacks.
Research by Save the Children indicates that 80 percent of Gaza’s children have displayed signs of emotional distress. The circumstances needed for healing to begin are completely missing, Abu Jamei suggested.
“How can there be a return to ‘normal life’ when conditions here are so dire that the UN has issued repeated warnings that Gaza may soon become unlivable?” he wrote. “How can our children recover a sense of safety when they’ve never felt safe? Even after the ceasefire, Israeli military drones buzzing regularly overheard trigger their traumatic memories, heightened by the knowledge that another assault is inevitable.”
Zayn al-Masri, 6, was getting sleepy as he sat in his father’s lap. Suddenly, their neighbor started shouting.
Rami – Zayn’s father – knew straight away that something was wrong. His neighbor does not usually call him by his name or try to grab his attention in the evenings but was doing so on this occasion.
Through their neighbor, the family learned that their home was about to be targeted.
“Luckily everyone got out,” Rami, a barber, said. “But seconds later, several bombs shattered our house to pieces.”
Zayn’s plans were shattered, too.
The following day, he searched through the rubble and found his moneybox. Zayn had recently moved into a new room and was saving up in the hope he could buy a new bed.
“Now I don’t even have a room,” Zayn said.
As one of many families uprooted during last month’s Israeli attack, the al-Masris had to find temporary accommodation.
At first, they stayed with Zayn’s maternal grandparents. Now they are renting an apartment near Rami’s barber shop.
No more nightmares
Since the attack, Zayn has stopped attending school almost completely and never wants to be away from his father.
“Zayn wakes up in the middle of the night, crying ‘Dad, where are you?’” Rami said.
“When we went to my relatives’ house [for a visit], they asked us to let Zayn spend the rest of the day with them,” he added. “It wasn’t me who refused. It was Zayn.”
Bisan Wakid, 8, was awoken early one morning last month. Israel had just bombed one of her neighbor’s homes on al-Jalaa street in Gaza City.
Quickly, Bisan’s mother Fatima took her five children into the corner of their own home.
Bisan clung to her mother. “Are we going to die this time, Mama?” Bisan asked.
Fatima was worried that the asbestos roof in their home would collapse. She had been injured in her lower back by concrete blocks falling from a roof when Israel bombarded Gaza during the summer of 2014.
“I was in the late stages of my pregnancy with Bisan then,” Fatima recalled.
Fatima confesses that she is now feeling helpless. Like many other children in Gaza, Bisan is constantly wetting her bed.
She has started sleepwalking and cannot pay attention at school.
“Bisan is now saying ‘I don’t want to sleep again,’” Fatima said. “ ‘I don’t want any more nightmares.’”
Khaled El-Hissy and Hamza Salha are journalists based in Gaza.