Hundreds of thousands of children shell-shocked after the war in Gaza
More than 370,000 children have been left shell-shocked by last year's Israeli attack on Gaza
Photo: Robert Tait
Sayed Bakr lived through a deadly missile bombardment in the darkest days of the war in Gaza.
But posing underneath a portrait of his closest brother, Mohammed, who he lost in that attack, proved too much. After volunteering to stand with the picture, the 12-year-old broke down and called for his mother.
Sayed and his friends were the target of one of the most harrowing episodes of last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. While playing football on the beach, they came under fire from an Israeli pilot who apparently mistook them for militants.
Four boys from the Bakr family died in the missile strike and four were injured. In the immediate aftermath, Sayed was left paralysed with terror, unable to speak, writhing hysterically against a wall.
Today, more than six months later, he is one of hundreds of thousands of children in Gaza who need treatment for shell-shock.
After his crying fits, nightmares and frequent violent outbursts he was given a course of powerful anti-psychotic drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He no longer goes to school, and is frequently visited by visions of the blast.
"I used to dream that I was dead," said Sayed, speaking hesitantly in the living room of his family's spartan home, a few hundred yards from where the strikes happened. "I always saw my brothers and cousins running after me in the dream. When the missiles struck and we were running away, I was certain we were all going to die. "Even today I am in continuous fear. Whenever I hear a loud noise or a bang, I feel terror."
This picture has emerged showing the four Palestinian boys running on the beach in Gaza moments before they were killed by an Israeli shell (mosaabelshamy)
He is not alone. There is no shortage in Gaza of stories of severely traumatised children still gripped by the after-effects of the war. The 50-day conflict left 539 Palestinian children dead and close to 3,000 injured, but according to United Nations, the mental scars have been just as devastating, if harder to quantify.
Children who saw their siblings or parents killed, often gruesomely, have been left stricken and around 35 per cent to 40 per cent of Gaza’s million children are suffering from shell-shock according to Hasan Zeyada, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.
On Wednesday, an Israeli human rights group said Israeli politicians and military leaders broke international law by persisting in bombing civilian homes, even after it became obvious that it would kill thousands of innocent people.
Sayed Bakr photographed at home (ROBERT TAIT)
Unicef admits it lacks the resources to cope. "We estimate that 373,000 children in Gaza needed psycho-social support after the war," said Pernille Ironside, head of the agency's Gaza field office. "We have been meeting on an on-going basis about one-third of those. The other two-thirds still require support - and they are not getting it."
Eyad Habib, 5, stands outside his family home on the way to school (ROBERT TAIT)
The outlook is grim even for those receiving help.
Muntaser Bakr, 11, Sayed's cousin, who suffered head, arm and back wounds in the beach attack, which killed his 10-year-old brother, Zakaria, has likewise been diagnosed with PTSD yet is arguably in an even worse plight.
Drugs costing £66 per prescription - a huge burden for his impoverished family are needed to control periodic fits and nervous convulsions.
Weeks after the incident, Muntaser tried to jump from a balcony in the first-floor family home in an apparent suicide attempt following a row with his father, Ahad, who caught him in the nick of time.
Muntaser Bakr, injured in the Gaza beach bombing, who is now on powerful drugs to control nervous convulsions (ROBERT TAIT)
He had to be withdrawn from school after he "almost killed a boy" in his class, according to Mr Bakr, 55, a fishermen, like most of the men in his family. The violent tendencies have continued at home, culminating in him trying to hang the four-year-old daughter of one of his older brothers.
"I die 100 times a day just seeing him like this," said Mr Bakr, as Muntaser fidgeted beside him with two teddy bears. "He is not the same child. He won't obey anything we say. If he wants something, he demands it no matter how it affects others. For a while, he used to say he wanted to become a fighter so he could avenge the deaths of his brother and his cousins. He has stopped saying it now and I don't want to remind him."
While many boys affected by last summer's carnage resort to violence, among girls the traumas often manifest themselves in withdrawn and depressed behaviour.
Ten-year-old Sara Kudaih is still haunted by the death of her younger brother, Anas, who died from blood loss after being wounded during shelling in the town of Khurza'a, near Gaza's border with Israel.
Sara Kudaih, posing beside a picture of her late brother, Anas, whose agonising death throes she witnessed. (ROBERT TAIT)
The family were forced to flee under a hail of missiles, leaving seven-year-old Anas on the ground with a horrific stomach wound, a ghoulish scene witnessed by Sara and filmed by a Red Crescent paramedic who arrived hours later to find the dying boy.
Today she is a frightened, introverted child who often refuses to eat or do homework, having previously been an excellent pupil, according to her parents.
Asked how she is feeling, she replies: "Sad. I lost my brother. He was killed."
Specialists have recommended 12 intensive therapy sessions to treat Sara's PTSD. Even then, she is only likely to reach 70 per cent recovery, according to Mahmoud Abdul Aziz Abu-Toaima, a psychologist with the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.
She is one of the lucky ones. Diana and Mohammed Ayad, were orphaned after their widowed mother was killed during shelling of Gaza City's Shejaiya neighbourhood as the family tried to evacuate their home.
Neither child has received psychological testing or support, despite experiencing enduring mental health problems, according to relatives, in addition to physical injuries that left Diana, 15, needing extensive skin graft surgery, and Mohammed, 10, having a toe amputated.
Scenes from Shejaiya, one of the neighbourhoods of Gaza City most heavily bombarded during the war (ROBERT TAIT)
Diana, who once wanted to be a doctor, no longer attends school and is confined to the family's shell-ravaged home by her injuries.
"I feel very bad psychologically because of the incident and suffer badly from my leg injuries," she said. "I'm not glad I survived. I wish I had died."
All this takes place against a backdrop of a dystopian landscape of ruined buildings and physical infrastructure - with the £3.3 billion reconstruction effort promised after the conflict having so far failed to get off the ground. Shejaiya, scene of some of the worst violence, looks little different from its shattered appearance last summer immediately after Israel's ground offensive.
It makes for a grim vista that has mental health professionals fearing a "lost generation" of Gazan children.
"The recent war surpassed the combined number of deaths and injuries from all the previous conflicts and the impact that is having on the children of Gaza and their future looks absolutely bleak," said Unicef's Ms Ironside."The adolescents here are at huge risk of losing hope and we face the danger of losing a whole generation of kids who decide they have nothing to lose and potentially get involved in militant activities."