Alaa, 30, mother of three children, writes about what it is like to be a mother in Gaza. She is currently in Rafah in South Gaza, living under constant bombardment.
Growing up in Gaza I know what war is.
But, despite all the insecurity and restrictions, I managed to build a beautiful life for myself and my family. I studied psychology and education, graduating as one of the top students in my class. I found a good job, got married, and we have three beautiful children. Taim is six, Tala is four, and Sally turned one year two months ago.
When the war started on 7 October, I was getting my children ready to go to the kindergarten and school. I had just put their little jackets and shoes on when we heard the first airstrikes hit. We only had minutes to pack our things. I ran upstairs to my children’s room and grabbed a few of their clothes. I felt like I was in a daze, seeing the house we had lived in for so many years, not knowing if and when we would ever return. What do you take? My little one still needs her baby food and milk, and the older ones seem to somehow understand the seriousness of the situation, despite their young age, quickly stuffing their kindergarten backpacks full of their favourite toys.
When we left our house in Gaza City, we saw hundreds of people running in the streets. We knew we had to get to a safe place and found shelter at my husband’s cousin’s house. I didn’t know them, and I felt like I was a burden.
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My children screamed and cried all night as they were so afraid of the bombing. I tried to calm them down, but there was nothing I could do to make them feel safe."
We stayed there for two days, and I slept on an empty stomach every night so my children wouldn’t go hungry. Then, one night, the house we stayed in got hit by an airstrike. One of our relatives died, others were injured. We were lucky that we survived.
We fled to Khan Younis and stayed at my husband’s sister’s place, cramped in a small house with two bedrooms with around 50 other people. I felt anxious and uneasy. We stayed there for 45 days until an airstrike hit the house next to us. I was playing with my children, trying my best to make them forget the war and everything that was happening.
Suddenly, there was just noise, the ground was shaking, with black smoke and dust everywhere.
Image: Children playing in a car that was damaged by Israeli forces in a makeshift camp in the Southern Gaza Strip. © Grayscale Media/CARE
I carried my youngest daughter, and the other two children went running with me. I couldn’t see anything, and my children were scared and screaming.
Ever since I first saw their little faces, I wanted nothing else but to keep them safe and healthy. Now, in the blink of an eye, there was just nothing that I could do but tell them to run faster. We found refuge in yet another house; it was packed with over 100 people. I will never forget the sounds of this house. Everyone was crying and screaming, mourning friends and family. Everyone who had lived in the house next to us was killed.
Since the beginning of the truce on 24 November, we have lived in our fourth shelter since the war started. We live with my mother and around 30 other people in a house in Rafah. For the seven days of the truce, my children and I finally felt a little safety. For the first time in over seven weeks, they were courageous enough to stand outside the house, to look at people and cars passing by.
As a mother, I am trying my best to be positive, divert their attention, and tell them silly jokes.
It breaks my heart to see the damage this war has done to them, and to see how my children, who were always full of life and joy, now need all their strength to even dare to leave the house.
But that is now over as hell has returned for us, and the bombings are worse than they have ever been. We were told to evacuate, but we simply do not know where to go. Nowhere is safe.
My children are petrified. Every minute they ask me: “Mama, when will we go back home?” The first thing my son Taim asks me every morning he wakes up “Mama, did the war end? Can I go back to school?”
My daughter Tala covers her ears with her little hands whenever there is a loud sound, tells me that she doesn’t want to die, and seems to disassociate from what is happening until things are calm again.
Sally, the one-year-old, cries a lot more than she did before. She wants to be close and hug me all the time. I’ve heard from other mothers that their children have stopped speaking, constantly wake up because of nightmares, and have wet their beds for the first time in years. How much longer until they can be children again?
We women are also facing many challenges now, not just as mothers. No one is eating enough, and in times of war it is usually the mothers who eat last. How do you deal with your period, when there are no sanitary napkins and no clean water? Where to breastfeed in privacy? What do you do if the milk flow stops because you can’t get enough to eat?
There is no electricity to make bread; there’s no cooking gas. We have lived on canned food for 60 days. There are no vegetables or fruits; no diversity of food. Girls cannot leave the house because it is too dangerous.
With all of us sleeping with dozens of people on mattresses on cold floors, family disputes and arguments are increasing. I have also heard cases of gender-based violence. All the shelters are overcrowded, and there is hardly any clean water. No one knows what comes next; no one knows where to go. The bombardments are worse than ever.
As a mother, as a woman, and as a Palestinian of Gaza, there is only one thing that I wish for. I wish for the violence to stop. For a lasting peace.
I wish that I could look at my children again without fearing whether this might be the last time I can hold them close. I wish that the constant crying and screaming, the terrifying soundtrack of this war, would stop so that we can hear our children laugh again and just let them be children.
Written with the support of Johanna Mitscherlich
Main image: A Palestinian boy stands on the debris of his family's destroyed house following an Israeli airstrike in the central Gaza Strip. © Grayscale Media/CARE