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Shadows of Children

The worst nightmares could not have prepared the care providers and hospitals for the day they received 39 children who were torn from their cribs and beds and dragged to hell, barefoot and half asleep, some with only one of their parents, some completely alone.

Those children were starved and drugged, thrown into damp tunnels and dark attics, coerced, and beaten by their captors or by a raging crowd, their skin branded with fiery exhaust pipes so they could be identified and wouldn’t be able to escape. They were forced to watch horrifying video footage of the terrorists’ atrocities - things that even adults couldn't watch without breaking into tears. They weren't allowed to go to the bathroom for hours, were threatened with rifles and shouted at when they cried. Some came back only whispering, some bruised and infested with lice. They weren't allowed to shower for 50 days, did not see daylight, were given stagnant water to drink. Some had severe injuries that were treated in terrifying isolation in Gaza, while others who were wounded received no treatment at all. Their captors cruelly taunted them - telling them that their parents had forgotten them, that they don't want them, that they'll be in those tunnels forever, that no one is coming to get them.

How can a delicate soul bear these horrors day after day after day – for 55 days??

"This is only the first level; we haven't gone with them to the deeper levels yet. Slowly they are peeling away. Shadows of children. Some of them are still silent, some of them are already talking," said caregivers I interviewed. We are beginning to understand that we need to come up with new words to describe the experiences of the children who have come back from Hamas captivity.

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The unthinkable phrase, "children in captivity," seems to belong to a terrible parallel universe.

"I thought about my children who were kidnapped, and wondered which things that I taught them could help them in captivity. I taught you many things, but I'm sorry I didn't teach you how to be a hostage," said Mirit Regev, mother of returned hostages Maya and Itay, in an interview, adding: "You don't know how your child will cry when they return from captivity."

But a groundbreaking protocol is being written here - one that no other country has written before.

This is the first set of rules for treating children returning from captivity, explaining how and what to ask and, more importantly, what not to ask and what not to do ("emphasize they're in a safe place, don't hug or touch, but you can offer"). We, who invented cherry tomatoes and Mobileye, the Iron Dome and Waze, have written a protocol compiled by the best therapists and welfare personnel in the country, putting on paper what our minds shy away from thinking about. This protocol continues to change and adapt as we go, humbly and with extreme caution, in accordance with the unfolding needs of each boy and girl.

"I hope no one in the world ever needs this, but I could already write a book on treating children returning from captivity; I learn so much from them about their needs," a senior nurse at one of the children's hospitals told me. "Now we know what to do, we know it has to be done slowly and gently, with humility and caution, letting them lead and, more than anything, not harming them further."

Perhaps the most important thing that was done in these hospitals was to attach a small flag of Israel to every white coat, so the children are constantly assured, even without words, that they are home.

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