Trapped and starving, two families in Gaza Strip try to keep their children alive

For those living under Israel’s attacks and a crippling blockade, every day is a race against time

Born in wartime, the baby had not eaten in more than a day, his father said. His parents had already spent the last of their money on food, sold his mother’s gold jewellery to buy milk and begged water from other evacuees to mix powdered formula. Now even that was gone.

The baby, Jihad, and his parents, Nour Barda and Heba al-Arqan, were trapped now in a storage closet with five other people at Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip last month as Israeli troops attacked. They had some Palestinian thyme and foraged wild greens to eat, but only that, and just enough water to moisten their mouths once in a while, Barda (24), told a New York Times reporter. Gunfire jackhammered outside. The Israeli military had surrounded the building and told anyone sheltering inside to stay put.

Shifa was the same hospital where Jihad had been born five months earlier – five months of searching all day for a little food, of nearly getting knifed over a little flour. All his parents could do now was sit and watch their son go hungry. Hungry herself, al-Arqan had no breast milk to give.

After two days, they had had enough. Jihad had not eaten in 28 hours. Holding one of Jihad’s dirty white T-shirts up on a broomstick, holding the baby close, they made their way toward the Israeli soldiers.


They left for southern Gaza that same day, they said, alongside other civilians fleeing the hospital raid. Israel’s invasion of the northern part of the territory, where the family lived before the war and had been sheltering ever since, meant there was nothing left for them there but starvation.

In Gaza, where Israel has cut off most of the territory’s pre-war water and food supplies and war has made farming nearly impossible, the United Nations says famine is likely to set in by the end of May. Aid groups and many governments blame heavy-handed Israeli restrictions on aid to Gaza. Israel, which had previously charged the United Nations with failing to distribute aid adequately, promised recently to ramp up deliveries after facing enormous outside pressure.

Oxfam has calculated that hundreds of thousands of people in northern Gaza, which has been closed for months to all but a small dribble of aid, are trying to survive on an average of 245 calories a day.

If people in Gaza begin starving to death on a large scale, experts say, it will happen first to the north, and first to the most vulnerable: children with pre-existing medical conditions; older adults; and the infants, born under siege, who have never known a full meal.

“What forced me to put up my hands and go down to the soldiers in the hospital was that there was a risk my little baby was going to starve,” said Barda.

Children in Gaza are already dying for lack of food. At least 28 children younger than 12 had died of malnutrition in hospitals as of April 17th, according to local health officials, including 12 less than a month old. Dozens more, those officials say, have most likely died outside of medical centres.

Desperate Choices

Born before the war, Muhanned al-Najjar was not yet teething when the fighting broke out.

After his family took shelter at a school near their home in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, Hanaa al-Najjar, his mother, said she fed Muhanned powdered formula that had originally come from the United Nations, buying it from resellers because no aid had reached her. It was the same for the water she needed to mix it: about 90 cent a bottle, bought on the street.

The formula ran out while Israeli forces were surrounding the area in February, so al-Najjar began feeding Muhanned bread dipped in canned beans and lentil soup distributed by aid groups. There were no freshly prepared meals, no vegetables. Day after day, it was only the cans – a diet that paediatricians warn cannot properly nourish children, who need fresh food and vitamins.

Muhanned had been a healthy baby, al-Najjar said. But, at about 20 months old, he lost his appetite. He stopped eating much. He stopped walking much. He might have drunk more water, his mother said, but the most she could give him was about two teacups a day.

In February, Israeli forces ordered the shelter evacuated. As the family left, al-Najjar said, the soldiers detained her husband. She and their four children searched for refuge without him, eventually ending up in a tent in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. The New York Times could not verify the circumstances of her husband’s detention.

Muhanned and al-Najjar’s older son, Mohammed (7), soon had fevers, she said, so she enlisted her husband’s brother, Jameel, to help find treatment. The went from hospital to hospital – six hours at Al-Emirati, four at Al-Awda clinic, seven at Al-Kuwaiti – before arriving at the European Gaza Hospital, where, she said, doctors told them the boys were dehydrated as well as feverish.

Mohammed seemed to improve by the time the boys were discharged after four days of receiving replacement fluids. Muhanned, however, seemed no better, refusing the bread and oranges his mother offered.

The baby’s case was “beyond difficult,” said Dr Montaser al-Farra, a paediatrician who treated him. Muhanned weighed about 5kg, half of what he was supposed to, al-Farra recalled. Parts of him were oddly swollen, others skeletal, indicating a severe protein deficiency.

Al-Farra said he was seeing many children in a similar state. “You can find malnutrition in every house and tent,” he noted.

Muhanned was so shrunken that the staff could not find a vein in his hand big enough to insert a line for the intravenous fluids. They used his leg instead.

Nowhere to Go

Five months before Jihad Barda’s parents fled Shifa Hospital, carrying their baby and waving his T-shirt as a white flag, they had arrived there for his birth. It was October 20th. Jihad, their first child, weighed 2.5kg . His name, after an uncle, means “struggle” or “striving.”

Every day in the months after his son’s birth, from 9am until sunset, all Barda did was search for food. He could never find enough. Markets had closed. Farmers had abandoned their crops. Bakeries were shuttered. Aid thinned.

People in northern Gaza got so desperate that the few aid trucks that did arrive usually caused a lawless frenzy. Whenever Barda tried to join the crowds pulling bags of flour off the trucks, the throng reminded him of bees swarming an enemy. You had to be brave to fight your way to the front among all the men armed with knives, he said. He rarely succeeded.

“Everyone is risking their lives for the sake of a little bag of flour,” he recalled. In those moments, he said, he felt as if he was doomed either to be crushed under the trucks’ wheels or killed by Israeli forces.

At one point over the winter, Barda said he succeeded in grabbing two bags of flour from a convoy. Then someone threatened him, saying that unless he gave one up, the stranger would take both by force.

In February, Barda was lunging for a bag of flour from a UN truck when he collided with another man who was cutting the ropes holding down the aid. In the chaos, the blade sliced Barda’s finger, spattering his prize with blood. But it was a good day. His family managed to make the 25-kilogram bag last two months.

Before the war, Barda worked as a baker at a pastry chain, but even if he still had wages, the informal street markets that have sprung up around Gaza City are wildly expensive. Desperate for food and baby formula, he said, he sold al-Arqan’s jewellery – two rings and a bracelet – for about €300, a pittance compared with what they would have fetched before the war.

He caught one lucky break: Rice looted from destroyed stores was briefly affordable on the black market. He bought two sacks for about €12.

When Ramadan arrived in March, Barda and al-Arqan decided to take refuge at Shifa, the hospital where Jihad had been born when things were bad but not unthinkable. By then, they had nothing left to eat except za’atar, the Palestinian thyme, which they had for breakfast, and khobeza, a wild green that Gaza residents have been foraging for meals, which they ate at night. For 10 days in a row, Barda said, they ate nothing else.

On the 11th day, out of food and with no water to mix Jihad’s formula, they made the decision to go. That day, Jihad weighed a little under 4kg, far less than what is considered normal for that age.

After they left Shifa, Barda said, they threw away the dirty white baby shirt that had served as their flag of surrender.

Fading Hope

At a field hospital in Rafah in mid-March, doctors gave Muhanned al-Najjar fortified milk and a peanut-based nutritional supplement and told his mother to bring him back in a week for a check-up.

Two days later, he was able to eat some of a peanut packet and drink some milk, along with more water than usual: a good sign. Al-Najjar said she left him sleeping for a few hours in her sister-in-law’s tent, where the flies would not bother him.

When she came back, she said, something seemed off. She tried to give Muhanned a little fortified milk. His small face went white.

She screamed and ran to find her brother-in-law. They tried two hospitals before doctors admitted Muhanned into the intensive care unit at the European Gaza Hospital, where he was given oxygen, she said. The staff told her to come back the next day, taking her sister-in-law’s phone number in case they needed to reach her.

When al-Najjar returned, Muhanned was dead. The hospital had called her sister-in-law with the news, but al-Najjar’s relatives had been unable to bring themselves to tell her. She was able to see her son once more before he was buried in a makeshift cemetery near the hospital.

She had not heard from her husband since his detention in February. There was no way to tell him what had happened.

“I feel lost,” she said. “My kids are at a loss not having their dad with us in this hard time.”

Amid her grief, she still had to worry about Mohammed, her seven-year-old. After another stint in the hospital, he wasn’t eating much, just like Muhanned in those last weeks.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times.