The Deprived Childhood of Gaza
There are many twists in the fate of Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip, but in Palestine as a whole. Although most of these events have been excruciating – the outcome of protracted struggle – yet they are all significant steps in the one million mile journey of my people. Gaza, not more than 360 square kilometres, may be a tiny spot of land on the map, but for many around the world it has become legendary, the embodiment of steadfastness and perseverance for an epoch. Currently bled dry by the Siege imposed for over five years now, it still prides itself on teaching the rest of the world what dignity and honour mean. Impoverished families whose houses were demolished in front of their eyes remain unbowed, not willing to give up. Families who lost loved ones in their battle for freedom are determined more than ever. Their plights and misfortunes have only made them stronger, more adamant in their pursuit of liberty. This is the image with which we welcome a visitor to Gaza.
A couple of years back, I remember that I had to stay up on New year’s eve till the clock struck 12 to cheer out a ” Hey!” in welcoming the new year. I would scold my husband for not joining in and by his passive: ” So what?”. As the wheel of time turns, I witness a striking change in my attitude towards the notion of time.
Almost three years ago , new year was pouring hell over Gaza, so that totally obliterated any elated feelings one might have inside towards celebrating this annual event. Here in Gaza when new year draws near, it has become commonplace for people to commemorate the war instead of celebrating the new year. Even more, people now remember certain occasions in their lives by dating them back to the war. So it’s become obvious to hear things like:” No, that happened before the war; or ” Yeah, I graduated 2 months after the war”, or: ” we got married right just before the war.” So, I’ve come to think that the people of Gaza have developed their own calendar system.
Given these facts, it will be hard to erase this system from the minds of the people here soon. I tested my own children on the New Year holiday to see what their little minds bore. So on this presumably happy occasion I asked my five year- old daughter: ” Huda, do you know why we’re all on holiday today?”. Unwilling to give no for an answer, she bent her little head against her shoulder and answered with a smile: ” Because of the war”.
I was struck silent for a moment, but my curiosity rose, so I prodded: ” What is war?”. She replied in an assertive voice:” it’s the qasif; (shelling)”. I wondered, if this is what evolves in their little minds at the age of five , when will they live the phase of childhood? The minds of children in Gaza will strike you with wonder when you hear their conversation. No matter how hard you try to detach them from the harsh surrounding circumstances, it’s impossible to escape the questions they confront you with. For example, when they are immersed in watching TV and suddenly the power goes out, they’ll throw up a fit and scream: ” Mom, who makes the power go out?”. Or, when they refer to any broken object in the house as having been: “shelled!”. The question which stunned me the most was when I had told them about their dead grandfather who died from a stroke that he had gone to Heaven, one of them instantly replied:” Who shelled him?’. It’s quite clear that their mental dictionary has retained terminology that many other children in the outside world will never learn during childhood.
Even on supposedly ordinary occasions, it turns out that keeping your children safe takes over your whole thinking. When I went to enrol them in elementary school, we had to choose one that was close to the house in case of shelling. I was set on putting each one in a different class but the principal advised me that I should put all three in one class so if Israeli shelling occurs we don’t have trouble finding them.
In Gaza, it is more natural to think of death than it is of life. Sky gazing, which used to be a favourite pastime of mine, has turned into a gloomy and ghastly experience. The hovering of choppers and drones continue to spoil the serenity and beauty of the sky I used to know. On the ground, as you walk in the streets the walls are daubed with graffiti about martyrs. I pass a coffin cloth maker on my way home from work and think of how this man makes a fortune from death. I pass by the cemetery which is inside the city and see a sign that reads: “There is no more room for burial here”, which people ignore because it is hard to make it to the one located in the eastern parts of city, close the Israeli borders. The children have developed their own worries and fears. Their innocent childhood has had to bear unbearable things. They have not been spared from the air strikes and have become an easy target for the Occupation. As a grown up, when you watch them shivering or crying when they hear a plane, your heart is shattered. Many children were targeted and murdered while playing outside in front of or on the roofs of their houses.
As days pass by you watch your children grow into inquisitive youngsters. By age five or even less, they can tell what kind of plane is hovering above, and whether a rocket if falling from above or being launched from the ground. Occupation is the primary source of disorder and displacement in Gaza for all of us: anything else is secondary.
The question is: how do we go about raising our children in this kind of atmosphere. With many facts on the ground too difficult to hide from them, we feed them with bits just enough for their little minds to take in. However, the outcome is not always predictable, but ignoring these tough facts which stand in our way wherever we turn is not an option for a parent living in Gaza. For instance, if we’re in the car taking the kids out to have fun, the car will stop at the traffic lights and they’ll be faced with a huge picture of a martyr on the wall and there comes the question: Mom , who is this? It is inescapable, so my natural answer is always: It is the Shahid, martyr. The term is not likely to be outdated by the time they grow up.
But life still goes on. Moreover, this lack of everything almost including our basic necessities does not include our morale and optimism. It does not include our resolve or faith. The people of Gaza have seen their small cities tumbling down before their eyes during the war. They have seen their loved ones shot or burned to death in the most brutal way. These scars may be very hard to heal, but we Palestinians have also learned that sixty three years of struggle are too precious to waste.