Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Sunday, 25 January 2009

Bowen diary: No ordinary school day

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen's diary of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Burnt-out classroom in Beit Lahiya (24/01/09)
Gaza's schools suffered heavy damage during the conflict


The first day back at school is always a rush for children and parents. Even if you're organised there's always an exercise book, or bag, or a pair of swimming goggles that has disappeared during the break.

Normally you can sort it out in a few minutes of frantic activity, and then the children get off to school, and peace descends again - for a few hours anyway.

So imagine what it was like to be a 10-year-old girl called Mona in Gaza. Her school reopened Saturday morning, after the break for the war.

She doesn't have parents to get her off to school, as they were killed by Israeli soldiers. Her brother took her back to their family house this morning, to find her school things.

Schoolbooks left behind

The Israeli soldiers who occupied her house pulled everything out of her cupboard. They smashed up the stone floor to get at the sand underneath to fill their sandbags. Mona's clothes and school books were in a tangle on the ground with the sand, discarded ration packs, and bits of tile.

Mona in Gaza
Mona lost both her parents during the Israeli operation

She rummaged around, pulling out books for her English course, and her dark green school smock.

I asked her why she thought the Israelis had come into her life.

She said that it was because they wanted peace to be for them, not for Palestinians. And I asked her what her mother would say if she saw her bedroom in such a state. Mona said she'd be furious.

In the end she decided to leave the schoolbooks behind and she carried the green smock under her arm. It was grubby and creased, so she didn't want to wear it.

Mona is a bright little girl, and she knows what has happened to her. She carries a pad of paper, and draws constantly. So do my children, but they draw pictures that show them playing in the garden, and having fun at parties, or on holiday.

Mona did two versions of the drawing that is most on her mind at the moment. It shows an aircraft firing missiles, soldiers, tanks, bulldozers knocking down buildings, and in the middle of it all is a house full of tiny stick figures. They are Mona and her family. Another picture shows her trying to help her mother and her father.

But any feeling of normality here or anywhere else in Gaza at the moment is an illusion

Probably because she was with a TV crew, Mona was a little late for school. Only a caretaker was there. He said that classes had been transferred to another building about a mile away.

The reason was that the school was no place for children. It had been badly shot up, and parts of it were burnt out. Mona wanted to see her classroom. It was a wreck. The playground was bleak, and empty.

Judging by the marks they had left behind in the sandy soil, tanks had driven up to playground wall and crushed it.

The other school looked more normal. I could not see any bullet holes, and it was full of noisy children. But any feeling of normality here or anywhere else in Gaza at the moment is an illusion.

A psychologist was at the school to talk to the children about what they had seen and suffered. She said she had to start with the teaching staff, because they were finding it difficult to function.

One of the teachers told me it was very hard to help the children through this terrible time when her own house had been destroyed.

'Punishment shootings'

The most shocking day of the war, the psychologist said, was the first. It started on a Saturday, which is a school day. The children she said were panicking. Most of the younger ones wet themselves. They had no idea how they were going to get home.

I ask all the Palestinian adults I meet here if they blame Hamas for their troubles. Israeli spokespeople have said many times that Hamas has taken the people of Gaza hostage, and Israel hopes it can separate Hamas from the people.

Many people in Gaza don't much like Hamas. They are ruthless with their internal rivals.

Mona's best friend was very pleased to see her, because she had heard that she was dead

The BBC is investigating well-founded reports that Hamas has been carrying out punishment shootings, mostly non-fatal but crippling, of several dozen people who support Fatah, the other main Palestinian faction. Hamas does not promote free speech.

But one man I met summed up the mood of the people to whom I have been speaking. He said that even if Hamas was attacking Israel, then the Israeli armed forces had no right to do what they have done to Palestinian civilians.

At the school Mona's best friend was very pleased to see her, because she had heard that she was dead. She held her hand and played with her fingers while Mona was talking to the teacher, whose eyes filled with tears when she saw her, because she also thought she had been killed.

She hurried away to the staff room afterwards. I suppose she thought it would not be good for her class to see her break down.

Mona did not put on her green school smock. I noticed how the other girls' smocks were fresh and nicely ironed and their hair was tied back with new white ribbons.

I'm sure her aunts in the extended family of which she is a much-loved part will make sure that Mona has what she needs the next time she goes to school.

She told me that she would still work hard, do her homework and live her life. But without any of the self-pity an adult might be forgiven for showing, Mona told me that without her parents half the future was missing.

Other previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:

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