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Gaza/Israel: How a child’s blue bicycle became a symbol of terrible pain

The bicycle

It’s a girl’s small, blue bicycle, under the stairs of one small home in the Gaza strip.

Ahmad*, whose home it is, keeps pointing at it. I’m bewildered. It’s a bit battered, seen better days, but still – just a bicycle.

When bombs started falling two weeks ago, Ahmad rushed his pregnant wife and two of his daughters under those stairs. He assumed it would be safe from falling debris and flying shrapnel.

He rushed upstairs to find his other three daughters.


A dreadful ending

I feel dread wash over me. This story can’t end well. Pausing for the longest moment, he points at the metal front door.

It’s shredded: some of the shrapnel holes are as big as dinner plates. And there are matching holes behind the bicycle: that shrapnel tore through the cowering family, too.

The daughters, aged three and 13, died quickly; their pregnant mother took a little longer.


A little girl unharmed but distraught

Ahmad can’t forgive himself. Of his surviving girls, two are in hospital with severe injuries, and one, Nada*, is physically uninjured but distraught.

She can’t sleep, cries almost constantly and only recently started speaking again. She’s five.

Her father is helpless and haunted by guilt. He asks me what he can possibly say to make things right again for Nada. I have no answer.


A terrible toll

Across the border in Israel, children have also suffered from the constant fear of rocket and mortar attack. This conflict has seen too many children slain by military actions, and even those still alive bear invisible mental and emotional scars – recurring nightmares, thoughts of suicide, an urge to self-harm.

The tally of child death in this recent conflict is staggering: nearly 500 were killed in just over seven weeks.

Yet tragically, this figure represents a tiny if harrowing fraction of the young lives torn apart by this conflict. 1,500 have been orphaned. Over 3,000 have been injured, some 1,000 of them permanently disabled.Hundreds of thousands have witnessed scenes of terror, blood and death.

The next few weeks are critical. We know that children experience trauma differently to adults: swift psychological support can make all the difference.


An unusual use for a balloon

Often that support involves group therapy and hours of specialist counselling. Yet sometimes this serious support can look a little silly.

One of the techniques Save the Children and partners are using to help Nada involves a balloon. Each day, while thinking as hard as she can about her upsetting memories, she blows all her fear, pain and confusion into that balloon, and then, when she’s ready, she pops it.

Simple techniques like these can help Nada understand that her feelings are important and real, but they are only one part of her, and someday, they will need to be left in the past.


A future that looks bleak…

My biggest fear for the children of Gaza and Israel is that their respective governments cannot leave their fear, confusion and hatred in the past. That every few years, we will see the same levels of violence, meted out by adults, felt most acutely by children.

Instead of becoming teachers, doctors, academics, those children will become soldiers and fighters, consumed with the desire for revenge. And Save the Children will once again need to rebuild our centres in Gaza, restock destroyed medical supplies, and treat children for mental trauma.

We will, because it’s what we do. But it’s a Sisyphean task.


… But a sliver of hope

This ceasefire is a sliver of hope. The international community must press now for changes, so that both Palestinians and Israelis can find enduring peace, security and freedom.

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