THE BLOG

The Guns Are Silent But the Children Are Still Suffering

08/09/2014 16:15 BST | Updated 08/11/2014 10:59 GMT

It's a bicycle. The only thing I see under the stairs of one small home in the Gaza strip. A girl's small blue bicycle. A bit battered, had seen better days, but just a bicycle. Ahmad*, whose home it is, continues to point at it. I'm thoroughly bewildered. He stares at the bicycle. Then sits down heavily and starts speaking in slow, measured tones.

When the bombs started falling on his home two weeks ago, he had rushed his pregnant wife and two of his daughters under the stairs. Most of the homes in Gaza are constructed out of concrete, and theirs is no exception. He assumed it would be safe from falling debris and flying shrapnel. He rushed upstairs to find his other three daughters.

I feel dread wash over me. This story can't end well. Pausing for the longest moment, he just points at the metal front door to their home. I turn to see. It's shredded. Shrapnel holes litter the door, some as big as dinner plates, others the size of pennies. So many holes.

We look back at where the bicycle is resting. There are matching holes behind the bicycle. The shrapnel that tore through that metal door tore through the cowering family. The two daughters, aged 3 and 13, died quickly; their pregnant mother took a little longer.

Ahmad can't forgive himself. Of his surviving three daughters, two are in hospital with severe injuries, and one, Nada*, is physically unharmed, but emotionally distraught. She is five, can't sleep, cries almost constantly and has only recently started speaking again. She's traumatised by what she has witnessed, and her father is helpless and haunted by guilt. He asks me what he can possibly say to make this ok again for Nada. I have no answer.

Across the border in Israel, children have also suffered from the constant fear of rocket and mortar attack. This conflict has seen too many children slain by military actions, whose young lives were wholly unconnected to the decisions of their governments. Those still alive bear invisible mental and emotional scars - recurring nightmares, thoughts of suicide, an urge to self-harm.

The tally of child death in this recent conflict is staggering - nearly 500 children were killed in just over seven weeks of war. Tragically, the children killed are a tiny but harrowing fraction of the lives which have been torn apart by this conflict.

A staggering 1,500 children have been orphaned. Over 3,000 children have been injured, some 1,000 have been made permanently disabled. Hundreds of thousands of children have witnessed scenes of terror, blood and death and need urgent psychological support. The next few weeks are critical. We know that children experience trauma differently to adults, and we know that receiving emotional support and counselling quickly after traumatic events can sometimes be the difference between recovering or developing a more serious condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Often that support is heavy-duty, involving group therapy, and hours or weeks of specialist counselling. Yet sometimes this serious support can look a little silly.

One of the techniques Save the Children and partners are using to help Nada involves a balloon. Each day she puffs all of her breath into a balloon, and thinks as hard as she can about the pain she feels that day, the memories that are upsetting her, her heavy weight of sadness. She blows all of that fear, pain and confusion into a big balloon, and then, when she is ready, she pops it.

This simple technique, used alongside other techniques, can help Nada to understand that her feelings are important and real, but they are only one part of her, and someday, they will need to be put into the past, as she moves forward into her future.

My biggest fear for the children of Gaza and Israel now is that their respective governments cannot put their collective fear, confusion and hatred into the past. That every few years we will see the same levels of violence between the two, meted out by adults, felt most acutely by children. Those children will then grow up in the shadow of hatred, and instead of becoming teachers, doctors, academics, they will become soldiers and fighters, consumed with the desire for revenge.

If that happens then Save the Children will once again need to help rebuild Gaza, restock destroyed medical supplies, and treat the same children for mental trauma - again, and again and again. We will, because it's what we do. But it's a never ending task.

This latest ceasefire is a sliver of hope. The international community must press now for ground-breaking changes that bring enduring peace, security and freedom for both Palestinians and Israelis. Otherwise this will not be the last war that children like Nada live through.