Gaza’s mothers are going through hell

A crowd of women pray

In Gaza’s overcrowded schools, there is little privacy or hygiene for displaced people. Here, women pray in Rafah. 

Ahmed Ibrahim APA images

Amid Israel’s ongoing genocidal war on Gaza, maternal healthcare faces excruciating challenges.

Deliberate and systematic Israeli attacks on hospitals and medical centers, and critical shortages of humanitarian aid, including medicine, have created a crisis that is endangering the lives of both mothers and newborns.

The situation is critical. There are an estimated 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza and some 180 births every day.

Israel’s decision in October to prevent food, water, fuel and electricity from entering Gaza created a desperate situation.

Inadequate nutrition, exposure to cold and hot weather, the absence of clean water, and poor sanitation weigh heavily on the wellbeing of women and children.

The circumstances force them to consume contaminated water, heightening the peril of dehydration and waterborne diseases, particularly among vulnerable groups such as expectant mothers, new mothers and young children.

Fuel shortages and the constrained capacity of the few remaining medical facilities exacerbate the difficulty for women in labor to access hospitals.

Um Amin, a mother with a few children, confronted with the harsh reality of displacement, recounted her family’s struggles during Israel’s aggression. As bombs relentlessly fell on their neighborhood, reducing their home to rubble, Um Amin had to seek refuge at a school run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in the northern Gaza Strip taking only very few belongings.

She was pregnant. And in the school there was little by way of basic necessities such as clean water, food or even clothes for her children.

Stay or go?

She considered moving south, where food might be a little more accessible. Her husband refused, causing conflict between them.

He feared not being able to return. And while she believed that the Israeli army was attempting to force them to leave, she also felt it was a matter of life and death for her children.

“It was heart-wrenching to witness my kids fighting over scraps of bread. My 4-year-old started stashing away bread in his pocket for later. I was shocked. Before the war, I never slept without knowing my children were fed. Now, most of the time, I am certain they never feel satisfied.”

Her entire motivation to carry on became a matter of feeding her children She denied herself food for their sake, but had also to remind herself of the child within her.

“The baby inside me is also a priority, so I had to eat too.”

She found the balancing act incredibly challenging, an unbearable burden of motherhood.

“I am going to share something I’ve never told anyone I know: I contemplated suicide to escape the weight of this responsibility.”

After the Israeli army unexpectedly stormed al-Rimal, a Gaza City neighborhood, for a second time, Um Amin panicked and fled again, this time going from the UNRWA school to a relative’s house.

But her fear caused her to enter preterm labor. A doctor, at the nearby al-Sahaba medical center, had to resort to a cesarean section.

It was hell, Um Amin said. There was insufficient anesthesia and she could feel the scalpel cutting into her body.

There was no electricity; the doctor had to use a handheld flashlight to see.

Um Amin’s cries of pain could not drown out the crashing of shells around her.

The operation left her utterly drained. She couldn’t believe she was still alive.

She needed nourishment to recover what she had lost during the bleeding and to breastfeed her son. But hunger was stalking Gaza.

Food was scarce, there was no white flour in the markets, and Israel was blocking aid trucks from entering the north.

“All I had to eat was bread made from animal feed and water. When I had my other children, I relied on foods rich in animal proteins, but it was impossible this time. The price of meat was five times higher than normal.”

The stone age

Unable to adequately breastfeed her child, she had to find infant formula. But the price was multiple times higher than it used to be and more than she could afford.

Eventually, she was forced to buy formula that was past its expiry date.

“You might blame me, but there was literally no other option. I didn’t have enough money. It wasn’t clumped together, so the doctor told me it could still be used.”

She would never find out. Due to the lack of clean water, she prepared the milk with non-potable water from a well.

The baby refused to drink.

She is currently displaced in another school, which houses tens of families. Sharing a room with another family means dealing with a lack of privacy and cleanliness.

The communal bathroom is inadequate for basic hygiene, like taking a shower. Diseases spread easily among the children, who suffer recurring stomach pains and diarrhea.

It’s a school. It’s not equipped to serve as a refuge.

“We’ve regressed to the stone age,” she reflected, describing the struggle to prepare meals over an open flame and the constant battle to meet her children’s needs.

Balancing a young baby’s needs with every other task is almost impossible. Whenever her son cries, Um Amin rushes to comfort him.

But if Um Amin is cooking at the time, she often returns to find the food burnt.

She has to carry gallons of water from the market while still recovering from the cesarean.

She feels only shame when she has to accept charity. But diapers are hard to get, and even when available they are expensive.

They never had to rely on charity before. But her husband, a barber, has no work and no income.

“I often wish Israel had just ended it quickly, sparing us from this slow death,” Um Amin told The Electronic Intifada. “They’ve destroyed everything: our home, our hopes for the future. My husband is now unemployed. We’re left with nothing but a few belongings.”

Malak Hijazi is a Gaza-based writer.