July 14, 2024

“My experience during childbirth was a nightmare in every sense of the word, or something like a horror film,” said 29-year-old Wajiha al-Abyad.

Her contractions started at around 9 p.m. on Oct. 29. “We called for an ambulance, but they told us they couldn’t come. The streets were empty and pitch-black, and there was no sound to be heard except for the noise of planes and shelling.”

After about 40 minutes, an ambulance did turn up. It transported her at high speed through Deir Al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip. “Most of the streets were badly damaged. I was stuck inside contending with contractions and jolts as the ambulance raced through ruined roads.”

Women, children and newborns in Gaza are disproportionately bearing the burden of the war, both as casualties and in reduced access to health care services. The U.N. estimates there are around 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza, and that more than 160 babies are delivered every day.

In the space of a few weeks, Ms. al-Abyad’s life had been turned upside down. She fled her home in Gaza City with many of her relatives on Oct. 14, after the Israeli military ordered over a million people to leave northern Gaza. She dreaded the idea of giving birth in these circumstances. “The tension and anxiety I felt were more painful than the contractions,” she said.

Since the outbreak of the war, crossings into Gaza had been closed, making it impossible for her husband in the United Arab Emirates to be by her side. Instead, her mother joined her in the ambulance.

Together, they made it to Al-Awda Hospital in Nuseirat, around a 20-minute drive from their home. They found the hospital’s maternity ward was no longer functioning: It had been repurposed to treat the large numbers of war casualties.

“There was a lot of tension and screaming, and the doctors were under extreme pressure,” Ms. al-Abyad said. “Patients there were bleeding, and they didn’t know what to do for them.”

Less than an hour later, Ms. al-Abyad gave birth to a baby boy named Ahmed. “Every five minutes, there was shelling right outside the hospital, so close that mothers would hide their newborn babies under their clothes, afraid that the windows might shatter and the glass would fall onto them,” she said.

“All I could think about was how will I leave? How will I go back home?”

Wajiha al-Abyad’s newborn son, Ahmed.Credit…Wajiha al-Abyad

Early the next morning, mere hours after giving birth, she left the hospital with her mother and newborn son. They walked through the streets for over three hours before she was finally able to flag down a car. “I was just praying that we would reach our destination,” she said.

Ms. al-Abyad with her three-year-old son Taim.Credit…Wajiha al-Abyad

Palestinian health officials say more than 3,300 women and 5,000 children have been killed since the war in Gaza began. The territory has been under siege since Hamas led attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7 that killed around 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.

The bombardment, massive levels of displacement, collapsing water and electricity supplies — as well as restricted access to food and medicines — are severely disrupting maternal, newborn, and child health care. About two-thirds of the Gaza Strip’s hospitals and primary care clinics are no longer functioning, according to the U.N. For weeks, Gazan Health Ministry officials have been warning of the health care system’s collapse.

“The last time I was able to check on my baby’s health was a month before the war started,” said 24-year-old Noor Hammad, who is seven months pregnant. “I’m very concerned that I might lose my baby.”

Ms. Hammad worked as a nutritionist before the war broke out. She fled her home in Deir Al-Balah after her apartment was bombed, and now works as a volunteer nurse at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis for six hours a day. Like many Palestinians in Gaza, she’s drinking dirty water and eating small amounts of processed canned food to survive. And she is worried about the consequences for her unborn child.

“These meals don’t have any nutritional value for me or my baby,” she says.

After giving birth, Ms. al-Abyad and her son Ahmed finally made it back to the apartment in Deir Al-Balah where they are staying with her mother, her 3-year-old son Taim, as well as her siblings, aunt and cousins — around 20 people in total. She says that, right now, Gaza is no place to raise a newborn.

“We’re trying to get out of Gaza any way we can,” she said. “I want to be in a place that’s safer, where there’s electricity, water and food. A place where children are respected.”