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Gaza's sick and malnourished children die as hospitals collapse from Israel's war


For the past eight months, hospitals across Gaza have shut down as Israeli raids and evacuation orders pushed from north to south. Israel says it is going after Hamas fighters, including in hospitals. International aid groups say hospitals must be protected. NPR correspondent Aya Batrawy and NPR producer Anas Baba have this report on the children dying as a consequence. And a warning to listeners, you will hear graphic descriptions of illness and death.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: At the ER in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in central Gaza, photographers snapped photos of Mohammed Atayeh, holding the emaciated body of his son, Fayez.


BATRAWY: Every rib protrudes. The skin around his knees and ligaments wrinkles. At 6 months old, he weighed just three pounds when he died May 31. The local press declared him the latest child to die from hunger as a result of not enough aid going into Gaza. But the baby's medical reports and a doctor who treated him show malnutrition is only part of the story. The short arc of Fayez's life mirrors the collapse of Gaza's healthcare system. He was born just two months after Hamas' deadly attack on Israel October 7.

MOHAMMED ATAYEH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: "He was my life and my soul," the father tells me on the phone. "He came after four girls and my prayers to God," he says.

NPR producer Anas Baba meets Atayeh the day after he's buried his son, Fayez. He scrolls through his phone.

ATAYEH: Allah.

BATRAWY: Photos show that for the first few weeks of his life, Fayez had a roof over his head. He's nursing and surrounded by warm blankets. Fayez's gummy smile lights up the screen. It's not long before the photos turned to Fayez in a tent and then a hospital bed connected to oxygen. Atayeh is by his son's bedside, caressing his cheeks.

ATAYEH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He tells NPR his son's health started deteriorating when he was 2 months old.

ATAYEH: (Through interpreter) The number one thing were the air strikes. When they fired them, the boy inhaled all the black smoke of that air strike.

BATRAWY: He says the bombs followed them as they fled from one place to another before they settled in Rafah in southern Gaza. Terse, handwritten medical notes seen by NPR show how as the family searched for safety, they were also searching for treatment for Fayez, who was no longer nursing and losing weight.

Doctors' notes from various hospitals and clinics show him diagnosed with pneumonia, fever, whooping cough. And at 4 months old, one doctor writes poor feeding. One of his sisters sits by his hospital bed. He smiles at her.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He's eventually operated on to remove a non-cancerous tumor impeding his breathing.

HOUSAM AL-TAWEL: The operation itself - it was successful without complications.

BATRAWY: That's Dr. Housam Al-Tawel, who performed the surgery in late April in Gaza, the same day he left back for Germany. He says the baby should have been kept on a ventilator after the surgery and given medications to recover, but the hospital is overwhelmed with victims of Israeli airstrikes.

ATAYEH: (Through interpreter) They kicked me out of the hospital against my will. I told them he isn't well enough to be discharged.

BATRAWY: By the time the boy arrives at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital a month later, his father had exhausted all available options, and they'd been displaced again. The final scribbled hospital report says he arrived with no vital sign - cold baby, dead body, heart rate zero. The cause of death isn't noted. Here's doctor Al-Tawel again.

AL-TAWEL: He didn't die because of the tumor itself. He died because of the lack of essential requirement, which required after such an operation. There is lack of food, lack of proper nutrition and lack of proper medication.

BATRAWY: The World Health Organization's director for the occupied Palestinian territories, Dr. Rik Peeperkorn, says Gaza never had acute malnutrition before this war.

RIK PEEPERKORN: We all know that malnutrition is not just dependent on food. It's you need the right food and the right food groups, etc. But of course, it links as well to the water and sanitation situation, which is dire everywhere, and of course, health services availability.


BATRAWY: At the same hospital where Fayez is pronounced dead, at least 78 people are recorded killed in one 24-hour period this week. Wounded and sick children line the hallways sharing beds. One of them is 3-year-old Hana al-Ra'i, withering away from diabetes and hepatitis A.


BATRAWY: Gaza's Health Ministry says it's identified around 8,000 children killed by air strikes in direct fire since the start of Israel's offensive. But there's no death count for the children dying every day from other causes of this war, like Fayez, and doctors say likely Hana soon too. Aya Batrawy, NPR News in Dubai, with Anas Baba in Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.