“There is no life for us in Gaza,” said Roba Sameh, while clutching her tiny new-born child.
“My daughter cannot grow up here without clean water, food or clothes,” she said on a bitter winter night in Rafah, near the Egyptian border.
“It is very cold for her because we have no electricity – and everyday I hope to get her out of this nightmare.
“I only think about her escaping death.”
Sameh, a 23-year-old resident of what was Gaza City in the north of the besieged enclave, described the news of her pregnancy last year as a gift from god.
She recalled the early months of unbridled joy and excitement as she and her husband, married last February, prepared for the birth of their first child.
But those emotions were replaced by abject fear at the beginning of Israel’s four-month-long bombardment of Gaza, following Hamas’ 7 October attacks.
Sameh, an Arabic tutor, spoke to Novara Media by telephone of the dreadful weeks that preceded what she called the “indescribable horror” of being forced to give birth in Rafah’s overcrowded Emirati maternity hospital as bombs fell around her.
Sameh, who has been separated from her husband during the war, is still hoping to raise at least $20,000 so they and their daughter can cross the border into Sinai, Egypt.
Her sister-in-law, Heba Mohammed, is eight months pregnant with what would be her first child – and like Sameh, she is hoping to raise the exorbitant fees to ensure her passage to safety. Mohammed is desperate to cross before her baby is born.
The 26-year-old is due to give birth in less than a month and she fears the conditions under which she’ll be forced to deliver her baby, with Gaza’s entire healthcare system on the brink of collapse.
After more than 100 days of war, 40 percent of pregnancies in the enclave are being described as “high-risk” by CARE international, while doctors’ groups say infant mortality has skyrocketed. Israel’s siege and long-standing embargo in Gaza also mean health workers operate in damaged facilities, with limited drinking water, poor access to medicines, as well as intermittent electricity and internet connections.
Only 14 of the enclave’s 36 hospitals remain partially functional, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says. This includes seven in the south and seven in the north.
For Sameh and Mohammed and their newborn and unborn babies, the Rafah crossing – the only operational exit point from the Gaza strip – is nothing short of a lifeline.
Nearly a month old, Sameh says her daughter is suffering from malnutrition, an unknown virus and other health complications – with medical treatment practically unattainable.
It is estimated that roughly 1.9 million people are packed into the dangerously crowded city of Rafah (about three-fifths the size of Edinburgh), with starvation and disease running amok.
Sameh’s baby daughter was eventually delivered on 17 December in the recently opened Emirati hospital, which was one of only a few in Gaza still offering maternity services.
She has since grown accustomed to a world of suffering, war and relentless Israeli bombing.
“The scariest moment was when there was no internet connection the day of my birth,” she said.
“I couldn’t contact my husband to tell him that our first child was coming.
“It is very difficult to be alone in that moment. Every woman needs her husband with her.
“I could not have painkillers while I was giving birth and the doctors can barely look at you because there are so many women to treat.
“There were two other women on the same bed as me. I felt so bad.
“The pain can’t be described. But, thank god, when I saw my daughter, I momentarily forgot all my suffering.
“The sound of bombs was continuous and I stayed a night there because we can’t move in the dark streets as it is dangerous.
“I had a lot of bad thoughts in those moments and I can’t even say I was excited to see my first child because I was very scared of the situation she was being born into – and I still can’t imagine how I am going to be a good mother to her in these circumstances.”
Sameh, her daughter and her mother are now sheltering with Mohammed in a packed home a short walk from the Rafah crossing. Their former homes and much of their neighbourhoods have been destroyed – and four of their family members have been “martyred”.
Sameh and Mohammed do not have dual nationality nor are they registered as severely injured and therefore must wait until costly unofficial “mediators” arrange their passage to Egypt.
These mysterious figures have long operated at the border, even before the war. They are known by Rafah locals to use their connections with high-ranking officials on the Egyptian or Gazan sides to arrange passage for Palestinians permanently or temporarily – to undergo pilgrimage in Mecca or find medical treatment, for example.
It is thought to cost between $9,000 and $10,000 for an adult to cross at Rafah, and at least $2,000 for a child.
Sameh says she has heard stories about people being scammed but insists that, because she will pay cash in Egypt, her uncertain passage will be worth the risk. She concedes, though, that she doesn’t know exactly who her mediator is.
Following the outbreak of war, nearly 20,000 babies have been born in the Hamas-controlled enclave, while more 135,000 children under the age of two are facing malnutrition, UNICEF has estimated.
United Nations (UN) Women estimates that two mothers are being killed every hour in Gaza – and 10,000 children may have lost their fathers. More than 26,000 people have been killed by Israeli airstrikes and the ground invasion since 7 October, at least 10,000 of them children.
These figures reflect the fate Sameh and Mohammed are so desperate to avoid – and the reason why they are willing to spend so much money, under such uncertain circumstances, to cross into Egypt.
A preliminary judgement at the UN’s International Court of Justice on 26 January found cause for charges of genocide by Israel to be investigated. As part of the case, brought by South Africa, it is alleged that Israel’s denial of lifesaving treatment and maternal services since the outbreak of war is tantamount to obstructing births.
Sameh and Mohammed are sheltering with 20 other people – and sleep in the same room as seven. Sameh says there is little food for her family or the home’s other occupants, who are surviving on mostly canned food – with no fresh meat, fruit or vegetables.
Mohammed married her husband four years ago and she is desperate to deliver her first child, a boy, in safe conditions – unlike her sister-in-law.
“It is very hard for me to think about how I will give birth through this horrible situation,” she said.
“I hear women in the hospital are giving birth on ground.
“I am so sorry – because most women in Gaza wish for nothing more – but these days it is a disaster to be pregnant here.”
Despite their hardships, Sameh is defiant.
“I am ready to do anything to leave here and go to Egypt,” she added.
“I just want my daughter to live a good life.”