Tag Archives: Operation Protective Edge

Gaza’s Mental-Health Crisis and the Trauma of Permanent War

Dear friends,

Below, please find an excerpt and link to my recent feature piece in The Nation, about the impact (especially on children) of chronic war in Gaza, published at the one-year anniversary of the 2014 assault.

I hope you will read, share, and look forward to hearing your thoughts, responses.

All the best,

Jen Marlowe


Gaza’s Mental-Health Crisis and the Trauma of Permanent War:
“The Jews shot me.” I was eating breakfast with 3-year-old Ibrahim Awajah in February 2015, in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia, when he made this proclamation. His father, Kamal Awajah, saw the surprise on my face.
“No, no, you’re the second Ibrahim,” Kamal quickly corrected the small, sandy-haired boy. “It was your brother who was shot, not you.”
The first Ibrahim, 9 years old, had been shot and killed by an Israeli soldier during the 2009 attack on Gaza, which the Israeli military named Operation Cast Lead. His parents and siblings witnessed the killing, along with the demolition of their home. The second Ibrahim, born in 2011, was named after his martyred brother. He has already lived through two massive military campaigns. He has also lived most of his young life in tent-like structures, first while his family’s house was being rebuilt after Operation Cast Lead, and then after it was destroyed again during the summer 2014 war.
Read the rest here.

Kids playing in the rubble of the destroyed home in Beit Lahiya, Gaza

Kids playing in the rubble of the destroyed home in Beit Lahiya, Gaza

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Khuza’a: homes and lives destroyed

On July 23, 2014 the Israeli military launched a ground invasion in Khuza’a, in the eastern part of Khan Younis. Dozens of civilians were killed, including a paramedic trying to evacuate the wounded. Destruction in Khuza’a–of homes, of lives, of hope for the future–was overwhelming. I went to Khuza’a with Yasser Abd A-Ghafour, a human rights defender from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, who had been on the ground documenting the atrocities in real-time. He showed us around and narrated for us the horrors that took place during the war.
My colleague and friend Fadi Abu Shammala took the following photos as I filmed at the entrance of Khuza’a, trying to take in the scope and scale of devastation and human suffering in front of my camera–and my eyes:

khuzaa jen6 khuzaa jen1 khuzaa jen7

Yasser showed us some of the worst hit areas and told us what happened as we drove through the main street, including a disabled girl being killed from an airstrike while, wheelchair-bound, she was unable to flee:

khuzaa car tour1

Notice the pain in Yasser’s eyes as he tells us what we are seeing outside the car window:

khuzaa car tour2

A destroyed mosque:

khuzaa mosque

We were there during a wind and sand storm; as you can see in the billowing of the tent:

khuzaa tent in the rubble


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Two doors, Daddy.

Many of you met the Awajah family through my film “One Family in Gaza,” telling their story from the 2009 attack on Gaza, in which their home was destroyed (the destruction began while they were still in their home) and their 9-year old son, Ibrahim, was shot at close range and killed.
When the family started rebuilding their home in 2012, the kids wanted the new home to be built with two doors.
“Two doors, Daddy,” the kids insisted, “So that when the Israelis destroy the home again, we can run away.”
Here is the Awajah family’s new home after the 2014 attack on Gaza. Complete with the escape door:

two doors, daddy

Below, are Kamal and Wafaa Awajah on the rubble of their twice-destroyed home. (Wafaa told me she had not cried at this second destruction of her home. Until this day, when I asked her to tell me about what happened.) :

kamal on rubble11wafaa on rubble9

And–hanging laundry on the ruins–a reminder of the resilience of Gaza:

laundry in the rubble1

laundry in the rubble2

This is 3 year old Ibrahim Awajah. He was named after his brother who was killed at age 9 in the 2009 assault on Gaza. Little Ibrahim has lived in tents and amidst rubble most of his young life. His family’s home was destroyed before he was born (the same day his brother was killed) and their newly rebuilt home was destroyed this past summer.

At breakfast one morning, he said (out of the blue): “The Israelis shot me.”
When he saw my startled look, he repeated it: “The Israelis shot me.”
“You’re the 2nd Ibrahim,” his father Kamal quickly corrected him. “It was your brother that the Israelis shot, not you.”
In this tiny child’s self-narrative, he heard his family talking about how Ibrahim was shot, and, since he is Ibrahim, he believed it must have happened to him…

ibrahim at night smilingwafaa and ibrahim by firelight

At night, Kamal made a bonfire outside the caravans that the family received just the week before I arrived, next to the rubble of their home:

feeding the fire Jen and Awajah kids betw rubble and moon there is light

The young children fell asleep by the firelight, and were then transferred into the caravans. (Kamal called me a few days after I left Gaza to tell me that the caravans were destroyed in last week’s storm. They are back in the tent.)

Here is 17-year old Omsiyat rocking her little brother to sleep, while 5 year old Lulu tries to fall asleep:

omsiyat rockig ibrahim to sleep lulu going to sleep

Nothing signifies “boyhood” so much as boy chasing puppy in play. But this 9-year old boy (Diyaa) is chasing his puppy past the giant crater left by an F16 bomb behind the tent where the family is now living:

diyaa chasing dog, F16 crater background

Kamal and Lulu walk down into the crater, demonstrating its depth:inside f16 crater

We had a birthday party for Diyaa, who turned 9 years old. The kids made seesaws out of the rubble and lumber:

see saw in rubble1 seesaw3 seesaw4

And, in the midst of trauma and heartache, there is love. Kamal gives little Ibrahim a kiss, from the rubble of their home:

kamal kissing ibrahim on rubble


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Gaza: Photos, reflections

Just got back to the U.S. day before yesterday after 2.5 months in Palestine/Israel, including 9 very intense days in Gaza. Didn’t post much while there…but now that I’m back, will be sharing many photos, many reflections; here, on Twitter and on my Facebook. More polished/produced pieces of writing and filming will come later. For now, the raw stuff:

Below: This photo of me was taken in Shejaiya, east Gaza City, on the rubble of what used to be a clinic. I have seen a lot of devastation in my life, but I have never seen anything like what I saw in Shejaiya. My camera (much less my brain) could not hold the scope and scale of the destruction:

shejaiya jen2

 Below: I met these kids as they were climbing in the ruins of their destroyed home, in Beit Lahiya, Gaza–very close to the border with Israel. Most amazing: they wanted to play and clown and have fun. Like all kids.

little boy climbing

kids scramblingkids beit lahiya2 boys climbing the walls boys beit lahiya1  boys with rubble and tents


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One Family, Two Doors, Nowhere to Run

(You can read the original of this article in TomDispatch.com)

No Exit in Gaza
Broken Homes and Broken Lives
By Jen Marlowe

Rubble. That’s been the one constant for the Awajah family for as long as I’ve known them.

Four months ago, their home was demolished by the Israeli military — and it wasn’t the first time that Kamal, Wafaa, and their children had been through this.  For the last six years, the family has found itself trapped in a cycle of destruction and reconstruction; their home either a tangle of shattered concrete and twisted rebar or about to become one.

I first met the Awajah family in August 2009, in the tent where they were living. I filmed them as they told me what had happened to them eight months earlier during the military invasion that Israel called Operation Cast Lead and said was a response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

I had no intention of making a film when I went to Gaza, but after hearing the family’s story, I knew I had to.  I returned again in 2012 and have continued to stay in touch in the years since, realizing that the plight of the Awajahs opened a window onto what an entire society was facing, onto what it’s like to live with an interminable war and constant fear.  The Awajahs’ story shines a spotlight on what Palestinians in Gaza have endured for years on end.

What stuck with me most, however, was the demand of the Awajah children regarding the reconstruction of their new home in 2012: they insisted that the house have two doors.

What The Awajahs Saw

In separate interviews in 2009, Wafaa and Kamal Awajah told me the same story, each breaking down in tears as they offered me their memories of the traumatic events that had taken place eight months earlier — a night when they lost far more than a home.  The next day, a still grief-stricken Wafaa walked me through her recollections of that night, pointing out the spot where each incident had taken place.

On January 4th, as Operation Cast Lead’s ground campaign began, the Awajah family was at home.  Wafaa’s eldest daughter, 12-year-old Omsiyat, woke her up at around 2 am.  “Mom,” said Omsiyat, “soldiers are at the door.”  Wafaa jumped out of bed to look. “There are no soldiers at the door, honey,” she reassured her daughter. When Omsiyat insisted, Wafaa looked again, and this time she spotted the soldiers and tanks. She lit candles in the window so that the Israeli troops would know that a family was inside.

Suddenly, the ceiling began to crumble.  Wafaa, Kamal, and their six children fled, as an Israeli military bulldozer razed their home. No sooner had they made it outside than the roof collapsed.  As tank after tank rolled by, the family huddled under an olive tree next to the house. When dawn finally broke, they could examine the ruins of their house.

Just as the Awajahs were trying to absorb their loss, Wafaa heard nine-year-old Ibrahim scream. He had been shot in the side.  As more gunfire rang out, Kamal scooped up the injured boy and ran for cover with the rest of the family. Wafaa was hit in both hips, but she and five of the children managed to take shelter behind a mud-brick wall. From there, she saw Kamal, also wounded, lying in the middle of the road, Ibrahim still in his arms.

Israeli soldiers approached her husband and son on foot, while Wafaa watched, and — according to what she and Kamal both told me — without warning, one of them shot Ibrahim at close range, killing him. He may have assumed that Kamal was already dead. Despite Wafaa and Kamal’s wounds, the family managed to get back to their wrecked home, where they hid under the collapsed roof for four days with no food or clean water, until a passing family with a donkey cart took them and Ibrahim’s body to a hospital in Gaza city.

As far as I know, the Israeli military never investigated the incident.  In fact, only a handful of possible war crimes during Operation Cast Lead were ever investigated by Israel.  Instead of an official inquiry, the Awajahs were left with a dead son, grievous physical wounds that eventually healed, psychological ones that never will, and a home reduced to pile of rubble.

One Family in Gaza, Jen Marlowe’s award-winning short documentary film featuring the Awajah family
Life Goes On

When I met them eight months later, the Awajahs were struggling to rebuild their lives.  “What’s hardest is how to offer safety and security for my children,” Kamal told me. “Their behaviors are not the same as before.”

Wafaa pointed to three-year-old Diyaa. “This boy is traumatized since the war,” she said. “He sleeps with a loaf of bread in his arms. If you try to take it from him, he wakes up, hugs it, and says, ‘It’s mine.’”

“What you can’t remove or change is the fear in the children’s eyes,” Kamal continued.  “If Diyaa sees a bulldozer, he thinks it’s coming to destroy a house. If he sees a soldier, whether an Israeli or Arab soldier, he thinks the soldier wants to kill him. I try to keep them away from violence, but what he experienced forces him to release his fear with violence. When he kisses you, you can feel violence in his kiss. He kisses you and then pushes you away. He might punch or slap you. I am against violence and war in any form. I support peaceful ways. That’s how I live and raise my children. Of course, I try to keep my children from violence, and help them forget what happened to them, but I can’t erase it from their memory. The memories of fear are engraved in their blood.”

I thought about Kamal’s words as I filmed Diyaa and his five-year-old sister Hala scrambling onto the rubble of their destroyed home — their only playground — squealing with glee as they rolled bullet casings and shrapnel down the collapsed roof.

What moved me deeply was the determination of Kamal and Wafaa to create a future for their surviving children. “Yes, my home was destroyed, my life was destroyed, but this didn’t destroy what’s inside me,” Kamal said.  “It didn’t kill me as Kamal. It didn’t kill us as a family. We’re living. After all, we must continue living. It’s not the life we wanted, or had, but I try to provide for my children what I can.”

The Fragility of Hope

In 2012, I returned to Gaza and to the tent in which the Awajah family was still living. It was evident that the trauma of their experience in 2009 — along with the daily deprivation and lack of security and freedom that characterize Gaza under siege — had taken a toll. “I had thought that those were the most difficult days of my life,” Kamal said, “but I discovered afterwards that the days which followed were even more difficult.”

In 2009, Kamal told me that the war hadn’t fundamentally changed him. Now, he simply said, “I lost myself. The Kamal before the war does not exist today.”  He spoke of the screams of his children, waking regularly from nightmares.  “The war is still chasing them in their dreams.”

Most painful for Kamal was his inability to help his children heal. His despair and feelings of helplessness had grown to the point where he had become paralyzed with severe depression.  “I tried and I still try to get us out of the situation we are in — the social situation, the educational situation for the children, and the mental situation for me and my family.”  But their situation, he added, kept getting worse.

My 2012 visit, however, came during a rare moment of hope. After nearly four years, the Awajah family was finally rebuilding their home. Trucks were delivering bags of cement; gravel-filled wheelbarrows were being pushed onto skids; wooden planks were being hammered down. In 2009, I had filmed Diyaa and Hala playing on the rubble of their destroyed house.  In 2012, I filmed them climbing and jumping on the foundation of their new home.

“I am building a house. It is my right in life for my children to have a house,” Kamal said.  “I call it my dream house, because I dream that my children will go back to being themselves.  It will be the first step to shelter me and my children, away from the sun and the heat and tents, our homelessness.  The biggest hope and the biggest happiness I have is when I see my children smiling and comfortable… when they sleep without nightmares.”  Kamal added, “I can’t sleep because of my fear over them.”

For Wafaa, while the new home represented hope for their future, its construction also triggered flashbacks to that night of the bulldozer.  As she told me, “Bulldozers and trucks bringing construction material came at night, and, at that moment, it was war again. When I saw the bulldozers and the trucks approaching with big lights, my heart fell between my feet.  I was truly scared.”

Planning for the new house also provided Wafaa and Kamal with a poignant reminder of the fragility of hope in Gaza. “The children say to make two doors to the house,” Wafaa told me.  “One [regular] door and the other door so when the Israelis demolish the house, we can use it to escape.  We try to comfort them and tell them nothing like this will happen, but no, they insist on us making two doors.  ‘Two doors, Daddy, one here and one there, so that we can run away.’”

The Gaza War of 2014

After my 2012 visit, I periodically contacted the Awajah family. Construction was proceeding in fits and starts, Kamal told me, due to shortages of materials in Gaza and their lack of financial resources. Finally, however, in the middle of 2013 the home was completed and as the final step, glass for the windows was installed in February 2014.

Five months later, in July, the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza began. I called the Awajah family right away.

“The children are frightened but okay,” Wafaa told me.

The Israeli army had warned their neighborhood to evacuate and they were now renting a small apartment in Gaza City. During a humanitarian ceasefire, Kamal was able to return to their house: it had been demolished along with the entire neighborhood.

When I spoke to the Awajah family at the end of September, Kamal told me that rent money had run out.  Seeking shelter at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school wasn’t a viable option, he said, because there were already so many families packed into each room. The Awajahs were back in a tent next to the rubble of their twice-destroyed home.

Click here to see a larger version

2014: Kamal and his children on the rubble of their twice-destroyed home

The family’s situation is far bleaker than in 2009.  Then they were able to tap into an electricity source and there was a communal outhouse for all the tent-dwelling families in the area. This time, Kamal said, the area near their house was entirely deserted: no water tank, electricity, outhouse, gas, or stove for cooking. Their only possessions were the few items of clothing they managed to take with them when they fled. They were sleeping on the ground, he said, no mattresses or blankets to ward off the cold, only the nylon of the tent beneath them. The children had been walking several kilometers to fill jugs with water until villagers who lived nearby made their wells available for a few hours a day.

Wafaa told me that she was cooking on an open fire, using scrap wood scavenged from the remnants of her house. For the first week, the children returned home from school every day and, surrounded by nothing but rubble, began to cry. Seventeen-year-old Omsiyat briefly took the phone. Her typically warm and open voice was completely flat, no affect whatsoever.

Worse yet, Kamal still owes $3,700 for the construction of their previous house.  Though the home no longer exists, the debt does.  “We are drowning,” Wafaa said.

The Awajah family today

Drowning in Gaza

The Awajahs aren’t the only ones in Gaza who are drowning. The true horror of their repeated trauma lies in the extent to which it is widespread and shared. Nine-year-old Ibrahim Awajah was one of 872 children in Gaza killed in the 2009, 2012, and 2014 wars combined, according to statistics gathered by the United NationsOffice for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairsand B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. (There was also one Israeli child killed by mortar fire in that period.)

The flat affect in Omsiyat’s voice reflects the assessment of the United Nations Children’s Fund that nearly half of the children in Gaza are in urgent need of psychological help.  And Kamal’s desire not to move into a communal shelter is understandable, given that 53,869 displaced people still remain crowded into 18 UNWRA schools.  According to Shelter Cluster, an inter-agency committee that supports shelter needs for people affected by conflict and natural disaster, the Awajah family’s house is one of 18,080 homes in Gaza that were completely demolished or severely damaged in the 2014 war alone. A further 5,800 houses suffered significant damage, with 38,000 more sustaining some damage.

Shelter Cluster estimates that it will take 20 years for Gaza to be rebuilt — assuming that it does not face yet another devastating military operation. As the last six years indicate, however, unless there is meaningful political progress (namely, the ending of the Israeli siege and ongoing occupation), further hostilities are inevitable.  It is not enough that people in Gaza be able to rebuild their houses yet again.  They need the opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity.

Kamal Awajah said as much. “I don’t ask anyone to build me a home for the sake of charity. That’s not the kind of help we want. We need the kind of help that raises our value as human beings. But how? That’s the question.”

There seem to be no serious efforts on the horizon to address Kamal’s question, which has at its core an insistence on recognizing the equal value of Palestinian humanity. As long as that question remains unanswered and the fundamental rights of Palestinians continue to be denied, the devastating impact of repeated war will continue for every family in Gaza and the terrifying threat of the next war will always loom.  The Awajah children have every reason to insist that their future home be constructed with two doors.

Jen Marlowe is a human rights activist, author, documentary filmmaker, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her books include I Am Troy Davis andThe Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker. Her films include Witness Bahrain and One Family in Gaza. She blogs at View from the donkey’s saddle and tweets at @donkeysaddleorg.

[Note: To help the Awajah family rebuild their home, Jen Marlowe set up an Indiegogo campaign on their behalf, which you can visit and share by clicking here.]

Copyright 2014 Jen Marlowe

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And, here we go again…

It’s so hard to find any adequate words to describe the current nightmare in Palestine/Israel, or to describe my feelings about it. Instead, I offer that which I wrote in November 2012–the last viewing of this horror show. Cut and paste a few terms (for example, “Operation Protective Edge” instead of “Operation Pillar of Defense” and changes the references to “last time this happened” to “two times ago when this happened” and everything below is still, tragically, maddeningly, completely relevant. Because we’re seeing the same thing all over again. And again. What’s easy to lost sight of: the human lives impacted in “Round 3” are every bit as precious as they were in November 2012. And December/January 2008/9. 

November 16, 2012
My cell phone rang at 2am this morning. It was my friend Munir, calling me from Gaza.
“Jen, can you hear the bombs?” he asked me.
I could.

As the madness in Gaza and Israel descends into more and more bloody horror, I know that I need to say something, yet am left wordless.

All I can do is to try to hold up a reminder of what should be so clear: that the human lives on the receiving end of the bombs and the rockets matter—all of them.

I know and I love Israelis who live within rocket range (and that number of people grows as rockets hit places previously unreachable, like Tel Aviv and near Jerusalem) and I know and I love Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who are huddling in their homes as hundreds of missiles and bombs explode around them, with worse expected to come.

I am making no claims of parity, as power and military capability is grossly imbalanced, and the context is one of decades-long occupation and on-going siege. Terrifying as I imagine it is in Ashkelon, I know that the horror that children in Gaza are enduring and have endured overwhelms the imagination.

I am, however, unequivocally stating this: My friends’ children in Tel Aviv are not safer, but less safe, because of Operation “Pillar of Defense”, and the precious toddlers that I recently visited in the Gaza Strip are no closer to living in security, freedom and dignity because rockets are shot into Israeli cities. The children who are being traumatized (and, in the case of children in Gaza, severely re-traumatized) are all, every one of them, innocent—and there is no justification for what they are being forced to endure. Unequal though the situation is, I insist on holding them all in my worry, because they are all under attack, and all their lives matter—equally.

So—without new words to write, I can offer instead only endeavors I have made in the past: to illustrate the humanity that is so often dehumanized, and to expose the unjustifiable devastation that is always the consequence of military action replacing a true effort to seek peace with dignity and equality for all.

With that in mind, here is a short film that I made about one family’s story during the last onslaught in Gaza:



Here is a blog post I wrote about visiting my friend Amer Shurrab’s family in Khan Younis, a few months after his brothers were killed.

Here is an article I wrote about my friend Abeer, who went into labor with her first baby the last time bombs rained down on Gaza with this kind of fury.

And here are two articles, Gaza Under Hamas, Gaza Under Siege, and In Gaza, Circles of Hell, that hopefully serve as a reminder of the dehumanizing conditions that Palestinians in Gaza have been living under for years.

My colleague and dear friend Sami Al Jundi said best what I want most to say:
“My children will be safe only when your children know safetly, and your children will be safe only when my children know safety.”

But then, Sami corrected himself:
“Actually, there’s no such thing as my children and your children. There’s only our children.”

With fear for all our children,
Jen Marlowe



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