Finally the war has ended and the children of Gaza can go back to school. What was supposed to be their mid-year vacation became their mid-year nightmare, the worst thing that could have happened: a nightmare that left them with unforgettable images of beloved dead faces, destroyed houses, and terrifying experiences that a child cannot handle and should never know.
The stories that each child will tell about his or her experience during the war, about a certain situation - a destroyed house or a loss in the family - will bring back the same feelings of anguish each time the story is repeated. Their stories will be full of horror and a pain that will accompanied them for life.
The war destroyed not only the infrastructure of Gaza, but also the mental health of its people, especially its children. After two intifadas, a suffocating closure and this war, the children have lost their childhood. It has affected their lives, their personalities, their minds and their tender hearts.
We were in the taxi returning from a family visit when Mustafa, my son, began a long conversation with the taxi driver. The way my son talked and expressed his thoughts when he saw the destroyed houses on the long road to our house from Khan Younis rang a warning bill in my head. I knew then that my eight-year-old was no longer a child.
The taxi driver was talking about those who had lost their loved ones during the war, commenting that they will eventually be forgotten as life continues. Mustafa broke into the driver's monologue and, in a firm voice, asked him, "Who will forget? No one will. If you bring me all the money in the world, it will not make me forget the moments of fear, those moments when we were waiting to die."
I was shocked.
The next day was the first day back to school and I was telling both my children what a nice time they would have there, especially as they would not start studying immediately. But they were quiet, as though they didn't care about any of the activities planned in school that day. They didn't seem to be interested in anything.
I was hoping that the effects of the war would not last long. I wanted my boys to act like children again and love what most children love, to wish for what most children wish for. That they did not made me very sad.
As they like to draw, I gave them paper and colours in the hopes that this would help to draw some of their emotions, the bitterness, out of them. Mustafa did not draw, but wrote, instead. "Gaza under fire. No water, no electricity. Nothing but death and closure". Ahmed drew destroyed houses and planes shooting from the air. That's all he would do; he refused to do anything else.
The next morning, both Ahmed and Mustafa went back to school. When they returned, I hoped that they would show some more enthusiasm. I was looking for signs that would to tell me my children were children again, back to their normal ways. I was waiting for them to come and tell me everything about their first day, about the happiness of seeing their friends, their teachers, their school. They came back only with stories of friends whose homes had been destroyed or whose relatives had been killed or injured. It was as though they refused to forget; they would not allow themselves to forget.
I asked myself, "If my children are reacting like this, what about the children who were in the eye of the storm? What about them?"
Gaza, January 2009
Najwa Sheikh Ahmed is a Palestine refugee, who lives in Nuseirat camp with her husband and three children. These are her personal stories.