Yasmine is a grave, self-possessed 11-year-old. She emerged from her coma after a nine-hour operation to remove nails embedded in her skull and brain. An exploding pin mortar had been fired into her house. Her father was hit in the stomach and can no longer work. I’ve held this type of nail in my hand. They are black, about 1Â½ in long, sharpened at one end, the tiny metal fins at the other end presumably designed to make them spin and cause deeper penetration. We sifted through a pile of shrapnel at the hospital, all of it removed from victims. These jagged, twisted fragments, some the size of an iPod, were not intended to wound, but to eviscerate and dismember: to obliterate their victims. Yasmine lives a short drive away from Abu Saguer, in a ramshackle enclave with a courtyard shaded by fig trees. Across a sterilised zone lies her cousins’ house, but it remains inaccessible (the cousins, including the most withdrawn child Sue Mitchell has ever met, are also her patients).
On the other side of a coil of razor wire, laid within feet of Yasmine’s house, runs a sunken lane gouged out of the sand by tanks. When Sue first met her, Yasmine was terrorised, screaming and throwing up during the night. Such symptoms are common. In areas such as this, leaving your house day or night means risking death; staying there is no more secure. Nowhere is safe.
Under Sue’s guidance, Yasmine and countless other cousins have prepared a show which, after many last-minute whispered reminders and much giggling, they perform for us. Yasmine is undoubtedly the force behind this. Her power of self-expression is immense. As she recounts the story of her wounding, her voice rides out of her in wave upon wave, full of pleading and admonition. Her crescent eyes burn within a tight mask of suffering; her hands reach out to us palms up, in supplication. At the end the tension in her fierce, lovely face resolves into the shy smile of a performer re-inhabiting her frailer self when the possession has lifted. Then there is a play, with sober, stylised choreography and a chorus of hand jives. A silent little girl whose expression is deadpan, unchanging, play-acts being shot by soldiers during a football game.
This four-year-old has witnessed much of the horror that has befallen the family. She lies obediently on the ground, splayed out and rigid. The mourners, curved in a semicircle around her, pretend to weep and wail, but they’re all laughing behind their hands; we laugh too. Then they sing: “Children of the world, they laugh and smile, they go to sleep with music, they wake with music, we sleep with shooting and we wake with shooting. Despite them we will play, despite them we will play, despite them we will laugh, despite them we will sing songs of love.”
Yasmine doesn’t join the others as they cluster around us to say goodbye. Looking up, we see her leaning on the parapet of the roof, smiling down on us. Silent. Her dark face is golden in the rich, syrupy light of dusk.
Sue Mitchell is one of three psychologists here for MSF. Each will work with about 50 families during their six-month stay. The short-term therapy they offer is invaluable, but in some way it seems like a battlefield dressing with no possibility of evacuation for the injured. These stories are unexceptional. Every room in every humble, makeshift, bullet-ridden dwelling, in each of the labyrinthine streets of the camps, contains a story such as this ” of loss and injury and terror. Of humiliation and despair. What separates those of Abu Saguer and Yasmine is that we carry their stories out with us. The others you’ll never hear about.
HOW CHILDREN LEARN TO SURVIVE ON THE FRONT LINE
Violence and bloodshed are the backdrop to the lives of the children of Gaza. That they cling to hope and their dignity leaves psychologists such as Sue Mitchell deeply moved. With one group of young patients, she has produced a practical guide to help them and children in other war-torn areas. The children of the Abu Hassan family â€” 10 of them, aged from five to 13 â€” were caught in Israel’s Days of Penitence offensive. “They’d been shot at, attacked, some of their houses had been demolished, they’d seen people blown up, and had been confined in the smallest room of their house for two weeks by Israeli soldiers,” says Mitchell. Faces they drew in the sand showed inverted semicircle mouths and large tears.
“I was feeling my heart small and I was unable to talk. I thought I was going to die,” said one. Mitchell was inspired by how they coped with the trauma, and wrote down what they told her. The result is a booklet in the children’s own words, How to Manage the Effects of a Military Attack: Tips for Children. “Invent games that make you laugh and help you breathe,” says one child. “Look at each other’s faces. If you see someone is distressed, talk to them,” says another. And there are dreams for the future: “Eat olives ” the olive tree is the tree of peace.”
“They’re delighted by the book,” says Mitchell, “but they also underplay their strengths. They say, ‘We’re not so special; all Palestinian kids know how to do this.