“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza today.”
These are the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during the emergency UN General Assembly meeting on May 20.
The 11-day carnage in Palestine killed 69 children and injured more than 540. On May 16 alone, 18 children lost their lives — the youngest victim was only six months old. Eleven of the children killed during the recent Gaza tumult were participating in a programme aimed at helping them deal with trauma. The irony cannot be brushed aside.
Nearly 107,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in search of sanctuary. That too at very short notice — some with only the clothes on their backs. Those that planned better, managed to grab an emergency run bag.
During the recent violence, 50 educational facilities were destroyed as well as 20 health installations. More than half of the water network is now damaged and almost 800,000 people do not have access to piped water which increases the risk (especially in children) of contracting water-borne diseases.
Needless to say, life of the people in Gaza is akin to death.
Before the recent wave of bloodshed, one in three Palestinian children required psychosocial support — a number which has undoubtedly increased significantly in the backdrop of recent history. According to a study published in 2020, almost 90% of citizens in the Gaza Strip had experience personal trauma while more than 80% had been a witness to ordeal. The study went on to reveal that almost 42% of children were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
While experts on conflict and trauma believe that children (on either side of the war) will experience adversative mental health effects since more than 40% of the population in Gaza are children below the age of 14, and are relatively more exposed to attacks and casualties, they are far more vulnerable to mental distress. Moreover, specialists have also pointed out that getting mental health care in Gaza is virtually impossible.
Across the world, one in six children is living in areas marred by conflict. In the past 20 years, children are more at risk in conflict now than at any other time in history. Those that survive have had their futures cut short.
Protection of children has been given due ordinance in various internal law statutes such as the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924, Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly on November 20, 1959, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to name a few.
These are not just numbers, these are girls and boys, like any other in the world. The difference being that where a normal childhood is marked by milestones, theirs is marked by trauma. These children of war will forever carry scars (both physical and mental) of apartheid, genocide and systematic racism. They have been deprived of the simple right to live in safety.
At the risk of sounding like an old record player, I believe now more than ever, it is time to find a peaceful sustainable solution to this decades-old conflict. Three things are key if these children are to have even a stab at a normal future. Firstly, international laws and standards need to be upheld, violators need to be held accountable and shattered lives need to rebuilt without dawdle.
Despite a ceasefire in place, stories of fear, surrender, and survival are still arising from the beleaguered territory. As Palestine fades from the news in the next few days and social media activism dies down, it is incumbent upon all of us to not forget how the violence we all witnessed jarred the very core of humanity. Else, we are all equally culpable of wrecking precious lives whether we are firing the bullets or standing by in silence.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2021.