The number of children with no one to care for them is mounting fast amid Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
When nine-year-old Razan Shabet was brought to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital one month ago, she was unconscious with a severe head injury, a brain haemorrhage and broken legs and arms.
For the first four days, she was listed as “101 Unknown”. Nobody knew who she was.
Today, the doctors and nurses at the hospital, where she remains housed in a tent in the compound, having been discharged from emergency medical treatment, still do not have the heart to tell her that both her parents are dead.
In the weeks since she first arrived at the hospital, medics have managed to work out that she and her family had been caught in an Israeli air strike on the Nuseirat refugee camp, where they had fled from their home in Tuffah, northern Gaza. Razan was the only survivor.
Ever since she woke up on day five, she has asked for her parents. “The most difficult question we receive is from a child asking you where their father or mother is, and they are already killed,” said Dr Ibrahim Mattar, an emergency doctor at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital. “When she asked, I just kept silent and told the child that she should be okay.
“She is intelligent, amazing and so cute. She doesn’t know her family was killed, she believes they are all okay. And we really cannot tell her the truth since we are keen that her treatment goes well,” Mattar added.
More than 8,200 children have been killed by Israeli air strikes and invading forces since the war began on October 7. Many more have been injured and most are deeply traumatised. Some have lost both parents – in some cases, all of their relatives have been killed. The medical professionals left to care for them in the aftermath have no idea what to do with them – there is simply nowhere for them to go.
A growing proportion of those being brought to hospitals following air strikes and assaults are children, Mattar said, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to care for them.
“Razan was crying out at midnight while all other patients were asleep,” he said. “She could not sleep or rest without analgesics, so we had to give her extra doses. I kept reading her stories during the night to distract her from her pain.”
Administering high doses of painkillers has become the only option to keep frightened, lonely children in a great deal of pain quiet, but it is far from ideal. In a lot of cases, there is no suitable medication available for children, so they are given adult doses rather than nothing at all. Mattar worries about the future health implications of this, he said.
Since the war on Gaza began, hundreds of thousands of residents have taken shelter in schools and hospitals in the hopes they might be safer there than in their homes – or simply because their homes have been destroyed and they have nowhere else to go.
With more injured children arriving every day, hospitals have become a de facto home for those who have no parents or family with them.
Baby Hassan Meshmesh was saved from under the rubble at just five days old after an Israeli air strike hit his home in Deir el-Balah in November, killing 58 members of his family. He has now been at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital for more than a month – nearly the whole of his short life.
“The entire nursing crew takes care of Hassan,” explained Warda al-Awawda, one of the nurses at the hospital. “We try to make sure he feels safe and responds positively to his treatment.”
The hospital has finally been able to locate a distant relative of the baby – Mohammad Meshmesh, 54 – who visits him in the hospital and helps to care for him.
Another child who is living alone there is Motaz Abu-Isa, who is seven years old and has recently been discharged from emergency medical care. He has spent 20 days at the hospital without his parents, with a fractured hip, legs and arms.
His only relative, Mohammad Abu-Isa, told Al Jazeera: “He lost his family. I was responsible for him. He was eating only one meal a day – some bread with some tomatoes. He was waiting for the war to end to go to the UAE and join his uncles. Now, instead, he will travel there for treatment. He desperately hopes this will end very soon.”
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