Unwashed and underfed, babies born into Gaza war face hardship in tents

Babies born into homeless, destitute families struggling to survive Israeli assault cause a humanitarian catastrophe

By Reuters

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Mervat Salha, the grandmother of Palestinian baby girl Mariam, holds her outside a tent where they shelter with their displaced family who fled their house due to Israeli strikes, in Rafah. - Reuters
Mervat Salha, the grandmother of Palestinian baby girl Mariam, holds her outside a tent where they shelter with their displaced family who fled their house due to Israeli strikes, in Rafah. - Reuters

Published: Mon 18 Dec 2023, 7:22 PM

The grandmother has a simple wish for her twin baby granddaughters, Alma and Salma: They should be in a clean, safe room where they can be bathed.

Instead, the infants are living in a tent in a camp for displaced people in Rafah, southern Gaza. Their mother cannot breastfeed them because she is not getting enough nutrition for her body to produce milk. And they have never been bathed.

Alma and Salma are part of a generation of Gaza babies born into homeless, destitute families struggling to survive Israel's ferocious military assault on their crowded strip of land, which has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

Their grandmother, Um Mohammed Al Jadba, struggles every day to find water to make them bottles of formula milk. She boils the water in a thermos flask on a fire outside the tent.

Palestinian mother Yasmine Saleh holds her baby daughter Toleen outside their tent in Rafah. - Reuters
Palestinian mother Yasmine Saleh holds her baby daughter Toleen outside their tent in Rafah. - Reuters

"They are a month old now, and have not been bathed yet. Do you see the space they are living in?" she said, holding a baby in the crook of each arm as she sat inside the tent. The floor consisted of mats and blankets spread on sand.

A few belongings were hanging in plastic bags from plywood slats that held up the roof of the tent. Otherwise, precious possessions such as clothes and a plastic water bottle were piled on the floor, around the edges of the mats.

Al Jadba said four babies in her family had been born into displacement since the start of the war: Her daughter-in-law gave birth to a girl, then her sister-in-law had a boy, then Alma and Salma were born to her other daughter-in-law.

It was a struggle to feed all of them, she said. The whole family was hungry.

"There is no nutrition (for the mothers), nor food for them to eat, how can they breastfeed? There is nothing for them to eat. Every day I feed them thyme, there is nothing else for them to eat," she said.

The family had first moved from Gaza City to Khan Younis, the main city in southern Gaza. The twins were born there, in Nasser hospital. Then, as Israeli forces extended their ground assault into the south, the family moved again to Rafah.

"Our hope was for these children to be born in a safe place, without air strikes, without wars, without the displacement these children are experiencing," said Al Jadba, holding the baby girls.

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One was fast asleep, dressed in a white sleepsuit decorated with colourful butterflies and wrapped in a turquoise blanket. The other was in a plain white sleepsuit and pink blanket, looking around her with big eyes, waving her tiny fists around and turning her face towards her grandmother when she spoke.

"They should be born in a secure place, in a clean room, for them to be bathed. What fault did these children commit?" said the grandmother.

Israeli bombardment has killed about 19,000 Palestinians across Gaza, mostly women and children, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run territory. A dire lack of food, water, fuel, medicines and adequate shelter is making survival a daily struggle for the entire population of 2.3 million.

The grandmother of Salma and Alma Al Jadba holds them in a tent. - Reuters
The grandmother of Salma and Alma Al Jadba holds them in a tent. - Reuters

Elsewhere in the tent camp where Alma and Salma were living, other families with babies were facing similar hardships.

Yasmine Saleh cradled her daughter Toleen, who was born on October 15, eight days into the war. A bright green sleepsuit and a tiny pink bib could be seen behind her, spread out to dry on the slanted roof of their tent.

"I never imagined that I would give birth in such a situation, or put my daughter in a tent in cold and freezing weather," said Saleh, who had wrapped her baby in multiple layers of colourful blankets.

Inside, a canvas bag full of plastic water bottles and one feeding bottle for Toleen was stored next to the family's food reserves: A small plate of pasta and a few sweet potatoes and peppers.

"The situation is extremely difficult. We don’t eat a lot so she is not getting breast milk," said Saleh.

"We want a beautiful life, safety, to come back to our homes, if they are still standing. For her to live a good life, away from war. To have a stable life full of safety."


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