Deir el-Balah/Rafah, Gaza – In a small tent in Rafah, Nagham al-Yaziji, 15, and his brother Mohammad, 14, hold down the fort as best they can, tending the house and caring for their seven younger siblings, the youngest which is six years old. Toleen, one month old sister.
The children lost their parents in the last four months and had to carry their younger siblings south alone, pitch a tent, and fight every day as best they could.
Holding Toleen in his arms and gently rocking her, Mohammad tells Al Jazeera about the day they lost his mother, Shouq al-Yazji, 37, in the first week of Israel’s war in Gaza.
“That day, my mother asked us to take care of my little sister, Toleen, who was three months old at the time, because she was going to visit my grandfather, who was nearby,” Mohammad recalls.
While Shouq was visiting his elderly parents, the house next door was bombed, killing everyone in it and the surrounding houses. Her husband and her children found out that same night.
“Hearing that was devastating,” Nagham says, describing the feelings of sadness and utter loss they all felt when they realized they would never see their mother again.
After Shouq’s death, the family struggled without her as their fears grew with the worsening security situation in their neighborhood.
Seeking safety in the community, his father took everyone to al-Shifa hospital for shelter. But conditions there were terrible, with overcrowding and a serious lack of everything, including access to hygiene.
The decision was then made to flee further south and the children’s father began to prepare for the trip.
“My father left us that day to go home and get some things we needed. But he never came back,” says Nagham. “We lost contact with him and we don’t know his fate.”
Amid the confusion and worry over their missing father, the older children were painfully aware that the situation was only getting worse and that something had to be done to protect the younger ones.
“So we fled south with my uncle,” Nagham says.
Their uncle doesn’t live with them. All he could do was help them set up his tent and keep an eye on them from time to time.
On a day-to-day basis, the older children take care of the younger ones and somehow all nine of them manage.
“I queue for water, help and bread every morning. I light a wood fire and heat the water to prepare formula for my little sister,” says Mohammad proudly.
Nagham, as the oldest, worries about her siblings every day. “Life without a father and a mother would be unbearable under normal circumstances, let alone under such dire circumstances,” adds Nagham.
Mohammad, despite his young age, tries his best to do the things his father would have been doing for the family, and it seems to pain him that the small makeshift tent where everyone takes shelter lacks even the simplest and most basic necessities. .
“Sometimes I go out to look for work for a day when we have nothing to eat and I need to earn money to support my brothers.
“But sometimes I come back without money and they go to bed hungry,” says Mohammad.
Nagham, for her part, is responsible for taking care of the entire family, especially Youssef, 18 months, and baby Toleen.
“I make their bottles with the help of Mohammad. I change their diapers and find out what our meals will be every day.
“Yesterday I managed to make falafel for them, with the help of my aunt,” says Nagham.
While she does the best she can with her circumstances, Nagham is still a child and struggles with fear, doubt, and sadness.
“I don’t understand everything children want. Sometimes my little sister wakes up crying in the middle of the night but I don’t understand what she wants.
“I don’t know: is he hungry? Are you suffering? I often end up crying along with her,” Nagham says through tears.
While both Mohammad and Nagham hope day after day that the war will end soon and that they can find out what happened to their father, they also live in constant terror of Israeli incursions and the ground assault that Israel threatens to launch.
“This situation is so scary. We are afraid when they bomb at night. I try to reassure my brothers and calm their fears, but I am shaking all the time,” says Mohammad.
“We don’t know where we would go anymore,” Nagham interjects. “It’s not like there’s a safe place where we can take the little ones and leave, so we stay here with our fears.”
“I miss my parents very much. Life without them is unbearably hard and sad,” concludes Mohammad.