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Nine babies from Gaza without a name or a family

Twenty-four newborns were evacuated to Egypt during the Israeli army’s assault. Three have died and nine of them have nowhere to go

Israel-Hamas war
A doctor and a nurse from the neonatal unit of the New Administrative Capital hospital care for unaccompanied premature babies.Marc Español
Marc Español

In a spotless room of the first functioning hospital in the new administrative capital that Egypt is building in the east of Cairo, nine babies without a name are resting. On the small signs that hang from their spacious cribs, overlooking the still empty vastness of a city under construction in the middle of the desert, they are identified only by the names of their mothers. The same ones that were written on the bracelets that hung from their wrists and ankles the day they landed in this gleaming complex.

No one knows who they are, or if there is anyone in the world waiting for them. They are part of a group of 31 premature babies who were born in Al Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza shortly before or during the early stages of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, and were evacuated in November after the Israeli army stormed the center where they were being kept in incubators. The nine unnamed babies were alone when they arrived in Egypt, and so far no one has asked about them. No one seems to know where their families are or if they have any living relatives.

The premature babies at Al Shifa, Gaza’s main hospital, became a symbol of the tragedy caused by Israel’s raid on the center, which was attacked again this past week. Four months later, the nine newborns embody the uncertain future of many Gazan children. The severity of the violence, the high number of deaths and the displacement of the population are separating thousands of families. And the collapse of the administration and the insecurity of traveling makes it difficult for Gazan children to reunite with their families, even if they still have a living relative. More than 13,000 children have died in Gaza as a result of the Israeli offensive, according to UNICEF data.

The bracelet and wrist of a premature baby recovering at the New Administrative Capital hospital in Egypt.
The bracelet and wrist of a premature baby recovering at the New Administrative Capital hospital in Egypt.Marc Español

A total of 24 of the premature babies were taken to the hospital in the new capital of Egypt. They arrived with a string of terrible conditions: severe dehydration, infections, respiratory difficulties, septicemia, organic disorders. “They were in a very serious condition, the chances of these newborns surviving were perhaps around 20%,” notes Ramzy Mounir, the director of the hospital, from his office. “We made a great effort,” he remembers.

Each baby had their own nurse, and there was one doctor for every two newborns, says Mounir. External specialists also took part in their care. “All the cases were incompatible with life,” says Ahmed Assawah, the head of the pediatrics department at Al Azhar University. So far, three babies have died, the first a few days after arriving, the second after a few weeks, and the last just a month ago.

The health of the babies in hospital has since greatly improved, and almost all could be discharged. So far, only four have left, but Mounir says that one of them fell ill after leaving the hospital and died. So, for now, the rest will remain hospitalized.

The case of the nine newborns who have no family is particularly complicated. “After [these] months they are in very good condition,” says Mounir, but for now “they are going to stay because they simply have nowhere to go.” In the hospital, they will continue to be cared for, he says, adding that a small nursery has been prepared for them. But it is up to the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities to make a decision about their fate.

Of the nine babies, it has only been possible to gather information about two of them. In both cases, the news was tragic. In the first case, the son of Fatima el-Hersh was born miraculously in Al Shifa, according to a nurse at the hospital, who was recorded by the media. The little boy’s family home was bombed, and his mother had to be taken to the hospital when she was 32 weeks pregnant. The doctor who treated her managed to rescue the baby from her womb, but she died, as did the entire family. “He is the only survivor,” stated the nurse, who admitted that they did not know “who will take care of him.”

The cot of Son of Fatima el-Hersh (the name that appears on the name tag).
The cot of Son of Fatima el-Hersh (the name that appears on the name tag).Marc Español

In the second, the daughter of Halima Abdelrabo lost her right eye and underwent surgery in Egypt to prevent malformations. The child was also given a glass eye. All that is known about her is from a photo of her medical file that was shared on social media. Handwriting on the document states that her family is dead.

EL PAÍS contacted the Palestinian Embassy in Egypt to find out if there are plans for these babies, but had not received a response at the time of publishing.

Incomplete family reunification

In rooms adjacent to the ones housing the nine babies without families, there are seven other premature infants. But these newborns are with their mothers. The five women — including two with twins — have settled in the hospital to be close to their children. Reaching them has been an odyssey in and of itself.

Ayat El Daour, a young woman from Gaza City, gave birth to her twin daughters, Mera and Dahab, at Al Shifa Hospital, just a few days before the Israeli army arrived at its doors. When she was discharged, she was forced to flee to a refugee camp due to the Israeli military offensive, which was getting closer to her home. And shortly after, with Gaza City devastated, she had to move south, leaving her daughters behind in the hospital.

For the first 10 days, El Daour was able to stay in touch with Al Shifa’s medical staff to make sure her daughters were okay. But when the hospital was besieged by Israeli troops, there was silence, and the news about her little girls stopped arriving. An agony that lasted for nearly 30 days.

“For a month it was impossible to communicate with the [medical] staff,” explains El Daour. “Every day there was news of a deceased baby, but we didn’t know which one,” she recalls from a bright waiting room in the neonatal unit of the Egyptian hospital. “All the news was about babies dying,” she recalls, “we were very afraid.” Five of the 39 premature babies in Al Shifa died due to lack of fuel and the electricity cuts, according to local health authorities and the United Nations.

It was by chance, reading the news, that El Daour learned that some of Al Shifa’s premature babies had been evacuated to a hospital in Rafah on a mission that the World Health Organization (WHO) — which led the joint UN-Palestinian Red Crescent operation — described it as “high risk.” Her daughters’ names appeared on the list. It had been 39 days since she had last seen them. “We were elated,” she says, as her third daughter runs around to get her attention.

Shortly after being reunited, Ayat and her daughters crossed the Rafah border crossing that connects Gaza with Egypt, and were taken to the hospital in Al Arish, the provincial capital of North Sinai. They remained there for two weeks, until they were referred to the hospital in the new Egyptian capital that has temporarily become their home. Doctors say that Mera and Dahab arrived in a critical condition, but that they are now out of danger. The father, whom Ayat hopes to reunite with soon, has not been able to join them and remains in Rafah, receiving news about his family only when the internet isn’t down.

Hospital of the New Administrative Capital where babies remain.
Hospital of the New Administrative Capital where babies remain.Marc Español

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