Scarred by a War: Palestinian Children at UN Summer Camp

by Tanya Thomas on Aug 21 2008 10:53 AM

The scars of war take time to heal, but at least this is a start. The UN-run summer camp in Gaza offers solace to the children of the war-torn region. This shelter is their only home they lost everything they ever had, including their entire families.

Take for instance, Huda Ghalia who is still haunted by the explosion on a Gaza City beach that killed most of her family. An iconic photograph taken after the June 9, 2006 blast shows Huda screaming next to the bloodied remains of her father, minutes after he and seven other picnickers were killed in a blast that the Palestinians and international rights groups said was caused by an Israeli artillery shell.

But now the tall, slender 14-year-old can be seen playing and laughing with other children at a summer camp, run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, where she has become an inspiration to other children scarred by war.

She leads a group of around 20 children between the ages of eight and 15 in games of handball and helps them with drawing and painting. "I like to draw flowers and children playing, not tanks and planes," Huda said.

The guns have largely fallen silent in Gaza since a truce came into force on June 19, but countless Gazans remain wounded, physically and mentally, from years of huddling in the crossfire between Israel and Palestinian militants.

Many children have found relief at one of dozens of summer camps operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provide essential humanitarian aid to Gaza's one million registered refugees.

"We provide educational and recreational activities to reduce the stress that Palestinian children suffer from, in addition to providing part-time work for people who are unemployed," UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.

Each summer around 200,000 children attend UNRWA camp held at schools and other locations across the impoverished territory. About 30,000 of them -- like Huda -- are attending camp on Gaza's sandy wind-swept beaches.

Unlike summer camps run by the Islamist movement Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in June 2007, and the smaller but more radical Islamic Jihad, the UNRWA camps do not include ideological indoctrination or military drills.

"We try to stay away from politics," Abu Hasna said. "The goal is to help these children confront the results of violence."

Fifty-six percent of the territory's 1.5 million residents are under 18 years old, and since the start of the year 69 minors have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian fighting, according to UN figures.

A few weeks of summer recreation may help the children confront their demons, but the scars from the Gaza war could last much longer.

"These activities will help Huda to begin to heal, but her suffering, like that of hundreds of other children like her, cannot be erased in two years," said Samir Zaqut, a psychologist and professor at Gaza's Al-Azhar University.

On a recent summer day as children raced across the beach savoring their last days of vacation before going back to school, Huda sat in the shade painting red and white flowers with her art teacher, Ilham al-Assamna.

Though Assamna is seven years older than Huda, the two are united in their suffering. The 21-year-old's home in northern Gaza was hit by an Israeli shell in 2006 that killed her mother and three of her siblings.

"For two years I could not smile or even cry. Then I met Huda and we began to move away from the pain and agony," she said. "We are confronting our tragedies together."

They are not alone at the summer camp. Huda's little sister Hadil survived the beach explosion with shrapnel wounds to her neck. She wants revenge, but not the kind offered by Gaza's myriad armed groups.

"I want to be a journalist," the 11-year-old said. "I want to shame the Jews because they killed my father and my sisters."

And there is Ayman, a 12-year-old who still has shrapnel in his thigh from an Israeli air strike a year and a half ago and is awaiting a final surgery to remove it. "I want to be a doctor," he said, "so I can heal people."

Maysaa, one of the counselors at the camp, has been listening to Gaza's children for years. "There are so many stories of suffering ... In every house you hear different stories."

After several months of therapy Huda was made a team leader by the Partner Foundation, a non-governmental organization that provides counseling to the children at the camps.

"(Ghalia) broke through the barrier of terror and went to the beach for the first time since the massacre of her family," said Hossam Radwan, the director of the foundation.

"We have succeeded in moving her past the shock but she is still depressed."

From time to time Huda stops playing, lowers her eyes, and falls silent. The camp counselors ask if she's all right, if she would like something to eat or drink. They ask her if she is upset.

"No," she says, as the feeling slowly passes. "I'm fine."