Is it OK to eat? Can we look out the window? Is it alright to leave the room?
These were among the questions that scores of traumatized Israeli children held hostage for more than 50 days by Hamas in Gaza asked doctors and social workers during their first days of freedom and recuperation earlier this month.
Slowly, the children began to regain their trust. A half-smile; an immediately-granted after midnight request for schnitzel and mashed potatoes. After some days, they were released from the hospital as doctors worked to help these child hostages return home. Yet their journey is only just beginning.
‘Shadows of children’ return home
They have been called “shadows of children.” Thin and emaciated, pallid and fearful; and all-of-a-sudden grown up, some orphaned, others with a parent still left behind in captivity in Gaza.
For over 50 days, many were kept in tiny underground rooms in tunnels, with no windows and no daylight, recounted Dr. Dana Singer-Harel, a pediatrician at Schneider Children’s Hospital in Petach Tikvah, who was part of a team of doctors and social workers who tended to the child hostages after their release from Gaza.
They suffered from meager food, no sanitary conditions, and the fear of the unknown. Some didn’t know how much time had passed or where they were. The lucky ones had their mothers or siblings with them. Some heard of family members killed on the Hebrew news radio that their captors were listening to.
Most of the children lost between 10% to 15% of their body weight, the pediatrician said. Some of the children were not allowed to shower even once in their 54-day captivity, while others showered just once with a bucket of water.
“This was not something you could prepare for by reading a medical textbook,” Singer-Harel said Thursday in an interview. “It was a case-by-case basis. There was no good way to prepare for this.”
“In my wildest dreams these were stories that I never thought I would hear,” added Ifat Ezer-Cohen, a hospital social worker.
And those were the lucky ones. Two children, including the youngest hostage, a baby 10 months old, and his 4-year-old brother remain unaccounted for, their fate unknown since they were not released with the rest of the 30-some children freed during the periodic releases held in November.
Most of the children released from captivity were brought to Schneider Children’s Hospital where they spent between two nights to a week, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Besides being emaciated and fearful, many had stomach flu, diarrhea and lice, but were otherwise physically in stable condition, Singer-Harel said. Because of the emotional trauma that they underwent, many of the children had regressive responses, and became more child-like such as wetting their pants after previously being toilet trained, she said.
Those who had their mothers with them fared the best.
“It was amazing to see how much better those children who had their mothers with them fared both physically and mentally compared to those who were alone,” Singer-Harel said.
The social worker recounted how some of the mothers made up stories so that their children would not be fearful telling them they were in a safe place because there was a war going on at home. As such, the children called their captors “the guards with the beard” or “the guards with the gun,” she said.
“The mothers’ main motivation was to protect their children,” said Ezer-Cohen. “Every choice they made—whether it what they said or how much they ate—was related to how to save their children.”
Recently released from the hospital and back with their friends and relatives if not at home, which in some cases was damaged or destroyed, it remains unclear how long it will take these children to recover from their trauma, whether it will be months or even years.
“The mental rehabilitation will take time,” said Singer-Harel.
“It is hard to say how long it will be,” said Ezer-Cohen. “This is a journey that they need to recover from.”