Gaza: Israel bombing gives Palestinian children no time to process trauma
Riyad Ashkontana was in his room when his wife went to look in on their five children after hearing an explosion at dawn on 16 May 2021.
Suddenly, he felt tremours throughout the four-storey building where he lived in Gaza City.
"When I rushed to see them in the next room, [Israeli] rockets started pouring down on us and the building fell on us," he told Middle East Eye.
While under the rubble, Ashkontana could only hear the crying of his children, Dana, aged nine, and Zain, two.
"I was calling all their names to check if they were alive, but after a few minutes Dana’s and Zain’s crying stopped. None of the others made any sound. I stayed under the rubble for 11 hours," he said.
Ashkontana was moved to Al-Shifa Hospital, close to his obliterated house. An hour later his daughter Suzy was pulled out from under the rubble. Miraculously, she survived.
"Suzy [Suzan] was seven years old when we were trapped under the rubble for 11 hours. She survived, but her mother and four siblings were killed next to her," he said.
Ever since that day, Ashkontana has tried to help his daughter cope with her loss but to no avail.
And two years later, things took a turn for the worst when earlier this month Israel launched another bombing campaign in Gaza, shelling a building next to Suzy's home and killing some of her friends.
"It made me so scared and cry. It was a massive sound," Suzy told MEE.
"I ran to my grandmother then we escaped and went to another house. It was scary. I’m still afraid to play with my friends outdoors," she added.
Now her father feels he is back to square one in his attempts to help her deal with the trauma that is grimly commonplace among the Palestinian children of Gaza.
Coping with loss
A number of reports have detailed the deep trauma afflicting children in Gaza. Euro-Med Monitor reported in 2021 that more than 90 percent of children had suffered from some form of PTSD following repeated Israeli attacks on the strip.
"After the martyrdom [of her family], Suzy’s trauma was severe and she almost lost the ability to speak," her grieving father said.
She underwent an intensive, four-month course of treatment at the NGO Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. Ashkontana would take her almost daily to recreational places and to have fun with her cousins, which helped Suzy to move forward.
"She always draws her siblings and mother. I still tell her her siblings and mum are in Paradise, which is a very beautiful place. They are over the moon there. They play with each other and we will visit them soon," Ashkontana said.
Suzy's survival was a great impetus for Ashkontana to try to get on with his life.
"[It is] Suzy’s survival and Allah’s ability who helped me. She has a very strong influence on me. I have stayed strong for her."
Despite her multiple major traumas, Suzy's academic achievement has been excellent, and she dreams of becoming a doctor and helping others who have suffered.
"I want to be a doctor to treat people," she told MEE.
A new start?
Later in 2021 Ashkontana got married, to establish a new family for Suzy. They had a baby four months ago and named him Yehya, after his five-year-old child who was killed in the bombing.
"The new family’s atmosphere has helped Suzy a lot, but nothing can make her life as it was before the bombing," he said.
"Since I lost my family, I have had obsessions that Israel will bomb a very close place again during its wars on Gaza."
On 10 May, Suzy was supposed to go on a school trip with her classmates, something she had been looking forward to for a long time.
"She prepared herself very well for the trip and I bought stuff for her," Ashkontana said.
But on 9 May, Israel launched a five-day assault on Gaza, killing 33 people, including six children, and leaving hundreds wounded.
Some of those killed were Suzy’s friends and classmates - it was another deeply traumatic shock for her, so soon after the last one.
Her father asked his brother to spend a few days with them in their mother’s flat in Al-Nasser neighbourhood in Gaza City. Playing with her cousins was a lot of fun for Suzy, and took her mind off the death of her classmates.
'It made me so scared and cry. It was a massive sound. I ran to my grandmother. Then we escaped and went to another house'
– Suzy Ashkontana, nine
However, it would not be long before her recovery was interrupted again.
On 13 May, Israel assassinated Iyad al-Hassani, a senior member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in an air strike on a flat adjoining Ashkontana’s mother’s, where Suzy was at the time.
"After having lunch, my son [Ashkontana’s brother], Suzy and other grandchildren were taking a nap. Suddenly, we heard a deafening bombing sound and saw fire and broken glass enter the room that overlooks the bombed flat," Ashkontana’s mother, 64-year-old Samira, told MEE.
"The children were screaming insanely. I didn’t know what was the target. It was extremely frightening. I took the children and fled. The sound was more scary than the rockets poured on my son in 2021. I was scared to death more than any time before."
Ashkontana was in a nearby grocery when he heard the bomb.
"I went to the grocery to buy stuff for the children. Then I found people running insanely toward the building housing my mother’s flat. I ran and found my mother, Suzy and the children crying loudly on the street. Suzy hurried and hugged me. Her face was pale. We fled to my brother’s house," he said.
After the Egypt-brokered ceasefire on 14 May, Samira returned to her flat. Suzy was hesitant to accompany her grandmother, but eventually she decided to do so.
"When she arrived and saw the bombed flat, Suzy cried and wanted to leave, but I came and managed to reassure her," Ashkontana said.
"The war exposed her to terrifying stuff we have been guarding her from for two years. She has had a setback now. I’m thinking of travelling with her to Egypt soon, to get her out of Gaza’s atmosphere."