Suzy Ishkontana, 7, clings to her new toys and clothes, but mostly to her dad.
For hours, they were separated under the rubble of their family’s home. Now she cannot bear to be apart.
More than two months have passed since rescue workers pulled the 7-year-old from the ruins, her hair matted and dusty, her face bruised and swollen. The sole survivors of the family, she and her father heard the fading cries of her siblings buried nearby.
Suzy’s mother, her two brothers and two sisters -- ages 9 to 2 -- died in the May 16 Israeli attack on the densely packed al-Wahda Street in Gaza City. Israeli authorities say the bombs’ target was Hamas tunnels; 42 people died, including 16 women and 10 children.
Altogether, Gaza’s Health Ministry says 66 children were killed in the fourth war on the Gaza Strip -- most from precision-guided Israeli bombs, though in at least one incident Israel alleges a family was killed by Hamas rockets that fell short of their target.
And then there are countless others, like Suzy, who bear the scars.
“My kids who died and my wife, they are now in a safe place and there is no worry about them, but my greater fear is for Suzy,” says her father, Riad Ishkontana.
This story is part of “The Cost of War,” a series of stories on the effects of four wars in Gaza over 13 years.
With schools shuttered due to the war, the coronavirus and the summer hiatus, Gaza’s children have little to keep them occupied as they wade through the wreckage. Most are poor; more than half the population lived in poverty before the pandemic and war wiped out more jobs.
Some of them are irritable, their parents say. Some wet themselves at night, are afraid to be alone, suffer from night terrors -- all signs of trauma, says Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei, director general of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
But there is only one licensed child psychiatrist for Gaza’s 1 million children, who make up just under 48 percent of the population, Abu Jamei says.
To recover, he says, children need to feel the traumatic event they’ve experienced is over and that life is returning to normal.
These children live in a place where the piercing whine of warplanes, the tremors of airstrikes and the humming buzz of armed drones are familiar sounds, even in times of cease-fire. Where when war erupts, there is no safe place -- and where four wars and a blockade have crippled life over the past 13 years.
In Gaza, Abu Jamei says, “life never goes back to normal.”
In the hours he and his daughter spent trapped in the rubble, Riad Ishkontana recalls hearing his older daughter Dana, 9, and youngest son Zain, 2, calling for him: “Baba, baba.” Later, Suzy would tell him that she could feel Zain under the wreckage.
Before the war, Suzy was an independent child, walking to school down the street with Dana, and picking up fruits and vegetables from a corner store for her mom.
Now, she struggles to speak with relatives or detach from the mobile phone, spending hours playing games, stopping to look at web pages related to the attack. “It’s almost like in losing her mom, she lost her life and her ability to deal with life and people,” Ishkontana says
When Ishkontana leaves to go on any errand, Suzy weeps and insists on going along -- she fears losing him, too. He took her to her mother’s grave; she brought along a hand-written note.
“Mama,” she wrote, “I want to see you.”