Morning Sun

What future awaits babies rescued from Gaza?

- By Claire Parker and Heba Farouk Mahfouz

For nearly a month, Shaima Abu Khater didn’t know what had happened to her newborn daughter.

By the time Kinda arrived on Oct. 30 — more than a month before her due date — Abu Khater’s home in northern Gaza had been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, she said. Israel was signaling it planned to target al-shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where she gave birth. The fates of more than three dozen premature babies, including her daughter, hung in the balance.

Abu Khater, along with the rest of al-shifa’s obstetrics department, was transferre­d to another hospital immediatel­y after delivering, as fighting got nearer.

Kinda, whom she saw only briefly, remained behind in an incubator. The weeks that followed were hellish. “I used to cry every day,” she said.

She learned from the radio that Israeli soldiers had besieged al-shifa. The hospital had run out of fuel to power the incubators; babies were dying. She and her husband, Samer Lulu, 28, couldn’t get through to medical staff there. Finally, in the third week of November, news came from relatives in Jordan, who had seen a list online of babies evacuated from al-shifa: Kinda was alive, and in Egypt.

She was among 31 newborns, wrapped in aluminum blankets and medical scrubs, spirited to relative safety by a United Nations and Palestine Red Crescent Society mission “under highrisk security conditions,” the

World Health Organizati­on said. Eight of the original 39 premature babies died before the rescue, according to Palestinia­n health officials. Three stayed in southern Gaza.

The 23 infants who were evacuated to Egypt and survived face a future full of uncertaint­y. Some have been reunited with their parents, but remain vulnerable. Others appear to be alone in the world, their families dead or unreachabl­e — raising vexing questions about who is responsibl­e for their care, and what will happen to them when the war is over.

Abu Khater’s journey to her daughter began with a harrowing trip south during a week-long pause in the fighting in late November. The couple slept in the streets of southern Gaza until Abu Khater — but not her husband — was cleared to cross into Egypt in early December.

Kinda had a liver infection and intestinal problems. She couldn’t eat, and she survived on intravenou­s fluids. But as the weeks passed in this gleaming hospital in Egypt’s new administra­tive capital outside of Cairo, she grew healthier and stronger.

This month, Kinda graduated from the incubator.

“I felt like a mother,” Abu Khater, 23, said of their reunion, cradling the baby — tiny and wide-eyed — in her hospital room. “Before, I didn’t feel like a mother.”

Down the hall, in two rooms lined with bassinets, eight babies lay unclaimed. They are known only by their mothers’ names, taken from tags affixed to their ankles at birth.

For at least two of them, news reports and social media posts provide clues to the tragedies that marked their early days: Ibn Fatima elhersh (“the son of Fatima elhersh”), sleeping facedown in a striped onesie, was the sole survivor of an airstrike that killed 11 of his family members in October. He was pried from his mother’s womb before she succumbed to her injuries at a hospital in northern Gaza, according to news reports at the time.

The son of Halima Abderrabo can’t open his right eye, which was injured in an attack. A photo of his medical file, shared on social media, shows a handwritte­n note: “The family members are martyrs.”

When the babies arrived at the hospital, staff thought they had less than a 20 percent chance of survival, according to Khaled Rashed, a neonatal doctor. They were severely dehydrated, “very sick” and couldn’t breathe on their own. Most weighed around three pounds. They had acquired infections during the journey, causing sepsis, “the great killer of newborns,” he said.

Five of the 28 babies have died since reaching Egypt.

“All the staff here did their best to preserve their lives, and praise be to God, succeeded with these babies,” Rashed said last week, surveying a nursery full of sleeping infants.

Five mothers, whose contact informatio­n Gaza health workers had tracked down and scrawled on a list, accompanie­d their babies to Egypt, according to Osama el-nems, a nurse from Gaza who arrived with them and remained here for nearly two months.

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