Birthdays under bombardment

Displaced children having their faces painted ahead of New Year’s celebrations at an UNRWA school in Deir al-Balah, 28 December,2023. 

Omar Ashtawy APA images

Since 7 October, all birthdays in Gaza have become potential death days.

Families are living dark and bleak days, almost just waiting for their turn to be murdered.

24 December was supposed to be a special day for Marwa Abed. It was her fifth birthday.

And despite the situation, her family were determined to hold some kind of celebration. Her father Muhammad knew that if they had not arranged a party, Marwa would have kept asking about a birthday cake.

Marwa, despite her tender years, has already lived through two wars on Gaza.

At kindergarten she loved English and Arabic. She loved memorizing the Quran.

She is the first child of Muhammad and his wife Aya and the second grandchild of the Abed family. She is always friendly and smiling and speaks almost too politely.

“She always got up early in the morning and had her breakfast to go to the kindergarten. Her activity is inspiring, and all her teachers praised her,” Muhammad said.

Now, however, her mornings are distressing.

“From getting up early in the morning with a huge smile on her face, to crying every night because of the massive bombardment, this is her life now. She cannot sleep at night and always cries out in panic, ‘I am afraid.’ Her life is nothing but torment,” Muhammad said.

Aya tries to keep her happy, but it’s a tough task to make a birthday cake under the circumstances.

“We have to fight for flour, so how can I make her a cake? Baking powder and other ingredients are not available and, if found, too expensive.”

Days before her birthday, Aya prepared some things for the birthday party, such as paper birthday crowns and some toys.

Normally, Marwa would get presents from her uncles, aunts and grandparents on her birthday. This year she only had two gifts, from her father and mother.

“We managed to make a simple cake, some popcorn, and date balls,” Aya said. “Her uncles, aunts and grandparents, all displaced and evacuated from Gaza to Deir al-Balah, gathered in the house to celebrate the birthday. Our goal was to make her happy. Nothing less. Nothing more.”

Singing louder

Every day in Gaza now is dark and miserable. Like everywhere else, Deir al-Balah – a city in the middle area – has suffered a series of airstrikes.

One landed very near Marwa’s house on her birthday.

“Instead of singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ the party was disrupted by intense bombings,” Muhammad said. “We waited for minutes, hoping the bombings would end. The sound only became louder. It was nerve-racking.”

Yet despite this, the children were intent on having fun. Over the sound of the missile strikes, they just sang louder, Muhammad said.

a group of children celebrate

Marwa, third from right, ended up with a happy birthday after all.

Abubaker Abed

“I honestly couldn’t speak for tears. I was so happy for her and the children. This is the first smile I have seen on her face for more than two months.”

Aya agreed, choking back her emotions.

“I know this is not the usual birthday party we hold. But at least, it made her day. It was truly delightful. But the fear that her fifth birthday could also be her last, never left me.”

Hassan, Muhammad’s cousin, was so happy for his three children – Ali, 8, Waleed, 6, and Hamza, 3 – that he couldn’t find the words.

“Hamza kept clapping and singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ I can’t remember a night he slept better during this war.”

Ali and Waleed’s birthdays are in February, Hassan noted.

“I hope this war ends soon. We are displaced and suffering from everything, so I can’t even think of planning their parties. I should be able to give them a nice birthday, like any child in the world.”

Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza has harmed children the most. More than 10,000 have been killed.

As children will, however, they are adapting, getting used to terrifying moments and terrifying days. Their childhood is turning into a nightmare.

But it’s the only childhood they have.

Marwa never imagined her birthday would be this way. But at least, she celebrated.

She had a moment of happiness. Her birthday did not become her death day.

Abubaker Abed is a journalist and translator from Deir al-Balah refugee camp in Gaza.