It is bedtime. The room is dark and silent and I am snuggling my baby to sleep in my arms. Her pillowy face is squished against my arm, her body warm and folded into mine. I tap her back and hum and watch her eyelids droop as she drifts off to sleep.

That same moment, as it has done every day for more than seven months, my mind cuts to Gaza. I recall the footage of the Palestinian mother gently rocking her baby in her arms. But her baby is dead, wrapped in a white shroud. I recognise the nearness she wants to feel to her baby. I understand her desperate desire to reach that place where the lines blur between mother and child, to rest in it one last time. I kiss my baby’s small hand and weep.

I am changing my baby’s clothes. Where did your hand go, there it is! Where is your other hand, there it is! My heart sinks. Quick as lightning, the images roll in my mind’s eye, one after the other. Children sitting on hospital beds with bandaged stumps where their arms or legs used to be. I think of the amputations children had to endure without anaesthesia. I feel sick.

Watching the Israeli genocide in Gaza unfold as a parent has been heart wrenching, an uncanny double life, watching children torn apart on our phones while holding our sleeping babies. The sharp grief and anguish that comes up from the pit of your stomach when you see a Palestinian child in pain, or dead, who is the same age as yours. I cannot describe the dissonance, the wretched heartache.

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Leena and I, photo by Mariam Tareen

For months, I have seen Palestinian children dead or dying on my phone. I have seen 2, 3, 4 year olds covered in soot and blood, trembling on hospital beds in the aftermath of Israeli strikes on their homes. I have seen children pulled out from under rubble. I have seen children on hospital floors gasping out their last breaths. I have seen children with burned faces. I saw two little boys crushed to death in their home by an Israeli strike. Their names were Mahmoud and Hamdan. I will never forget their faces.

But what is my pain as a witness compared to the pain of Palestinian parents? How many multiples would it take to get within range of it? On what scale do we even measure it? What is my heartache compared to the father searching for his little girl’s body in the rubble, digging with his scratched and bleeding fingers, knowing she is dead, only so that he can at least give her a dignified burial? Of the parents whose children died in their arms on hospital floors as they screamed helplessly at the doctors to save them? Frenzied mothers at the mass graves found at Nasser Hospital, going from grave to grave, looking for the most minute detail that will help them identify their children’s bodies.

I think of how gentle we are with our children, with each other’s children. How, in the middle of a conversation, without having to look, our hand reflexively reaches out and folds over the sharp corner of the coffee table as a baby crawls past. How do you protect your child from a missile aimed at your house?

In its seven-month long assault on Gaza, Israel has killed more than 35,000 people, a figure that is widely regarded to be a gross undercount). An astonishing number of those killed are children, more than 15,000. More children have been killed in Gaza than all conflicts around the world in the last four years. Tens of thousands more have suffered serious injuries, including amputations. According to a Save the Children report, “it is unlikely that a single child in Gaza has been untouched by personal bereavement or loss.”

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Ameena and Leena, photo by Mariam Tareen

In October last year, at almost the beginning of this unprecedented assault on Gaza, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder had said that “Gaza has become a graveyard for thousands of children.” Back then, it was mainly the bombs that were killing children, ripping apart their small bodies. By March, after months of blocking access to food and water as a matter of Israeli policy, UNICEF executive director Catherine Russel visited wards of children suffering from severe malnutrition and noted how completely quiet they were, “because the children, the babies, don’t even have the energy to cry.”

The Israeli forces have bombed children in their homes, on the streets, in schools, hospitals, playgrounds and tents. They have sniped them, starved them, maimed them, detained and tortured them, killed their parents and siblings in front of them. They killed 6 year old Hind Rajab alone in a car surrounded by the dead bodies of her family after she called emergency services pleading for help.

In February, UNICEF estimated that at least 17,000 children in the Gaza Strip are unaccompanied or have been separated from their immediate relatives since the assault began. That number is likely much higher now. There are orphans who are forced to look after their orphaned siblings. Cases of children arriving in hospitals with no surviving family members to care for them were so high in number that medical workers had to come up with a new acronym: WCNSF (Wounded Child No Surviving Family). The horrors in Gaza are so beyond comprehension that they are generating a new lexicon.

Shall I go on? Children were dying from the cold, and now they are dying from the heat. There are babies who were born amidst the horror of this genocide and who died in the genocide. There are babies who died in incubators without ever being held by their parents, babies who have died before being named. A baby who survived an Israeli strike after being cut out of her dead mother’s womb died a few days later.

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Misha Japanwala. Insaniyat (Humanity)

How do we grapple with the heft of such sentences? How do we continue to live unchanged in a world where this is a reality?

How can their small bodies bear not just the weight of collapsed buildings and terror of falling missiles, but also the memories of the trauma they have endured? How will they continue their lives after the horror is over? There are already reports of children with selective mutism, children who have stopped eating from fear, children who cannot sleep, children who do not want to live.

Sometimes when I look at my phone, I feel like I'm losing my mind. I don’t know how to contend with a genocide of children that has not been stopped. When I see the footage, I cry not only for the pain of Palestinian children and their families, but for the state of the world that diminishes it, dismisses it.

Gaza has exposed the grotesque double standards of the “civilised world”, of those who profess to believe in freedom and justice and can’t stop lecturing the rest of the world about it. Gaza has exposed those who loudly condemned the killing of imaginary beheaded babies, but stayed silent when real Palestinian children were killed. What kind of upside down, ugly world have they made, where the brave souls who protest the genocide are arrested and assaulted on university campuses, while Israel is granted full impunity to commit daily massacres of Palestinians that are broadcast to the world?

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Mother and her child, watercolors, 2019 by Sliman Mansour

Now that the live streamed genocide of Palestinian children is deemed acceptable by those in power, there is not enough forgiveness in the world to undo what has been unleashed.

We think of the heart as the place of feelings and emotion. But in Islamic understanding, the heart (al-qalb) is also the seat of knowledge, perception, and intellect. Islamic scholars have defined the heart as the centre of human consciousness, that which distinguishes between truth and falsehood, right and wrong; the locus of our willpower and volition. A turning point. In fact, the Arabic root of qalb denotes exactly that, to change, to turn something inside out, to transform, a reference to how the heart is always in a state of flux both physically,while pumping blood throughout the body, and metaphorically.

Perhaps what this means is that when we witness what is happening in Gaza, we allow our hearts to break, and then to reframe our lives around the cause: to witness, to boycott, to protest, to speak up, any way we can, to break the narratives we have grown up with and, to insist on a life compatible with our new understanding of the world.

I pray that we never reach a point when the tears stop coming, when our hearts adjust, when our minds expect the carnage that we see. That would be truly gruesome.

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Photo by Motaz Azaiza

I will never forget what they did to the children of Palestine. I will be haunted by their faces, their small bodies, forever. Gaza will long be remembered as a place that untold horror beyond description took place, as a disgraceful failure of world institutions that were supposedly designed to prevent horrors of such magnitude. And yet. I am seeing the world shifting, turning, transforming from one thing to another.

In Urdu, the word for revolution is inquilab. The word comes from the same Arabic root as the word for heart, qalb, to turn around, to change, to transform from one thing to another.

Dr Ghassan Abu Sittah, a British-Palestinian surgeon who became famous worldwide for his work with Doctors Without Borders in Gaza while volunteering at Al-Shifa Hospital, said: “Israel fears Palestinian children. They represent the Palestinian tomorrow and are therefore a mortal threat to the Zionist project. That is why Israel has intentionally targeted children in its genocidal war.” It is the children who are being killed in Gaza, and it is young students around the world who are being beaten and arrested by the most powerful governments, who feel their power shrinking, the ground beneath their feet shifting.

My older daughter is 7. I show her the protests and marches, the brave students and their supporters demanding an end to Western complicity in the genocide in Gaza, chanting for a free Palestine. I cannot predict what the world will look like when she is older, but I want to impress upon her the links between qalb and inquilab, how both words, in two different languages, with two different meanings, come from the same root. In the world our children are now growing up in, a world that seems to be on the verge, the connection between what we feel, what we know, and what we do has never been more important.

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Photo by Motaz Azaiza

Mariam Tareen is a writer based in Lahore. Her work has appeared in Dawn, Book Riot, Bustle, and Risala Magazine, amongst other publications. Mariam is the founder of The Writing Room, a platform for aspiring writers where she hosts writing workshops, interviews writers, and teaches children the magic and craft of writing stories.

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