In Gaza’s battlescape, a race to save a single child

Hussein Shaheen with his nephew, Mohammed Shaheen. Photo: Eman Helal for The Wall Street Journal
Hussein Shaheen with his nephew, Mohammed Shaheen. Photo: Eman Helal for The Wall Street Journal


Nine-year-old Mohammed Shaheen lost his family in Gaza in December. From that day his uncle set to work to get him out.

In the early morning of Dec. 7, a blast shook the room where Mohammed Shaheen slept beside his parents and younger siblings in central Gaza, startling the nine-year-old and his family awake.

Three more strikes followed in rapid succession, collapsing the walls and sparking a fire. Mohammed’s vision was blurred; blood streamed down his face. His relatives, rattled but unhurt when he checked on them moments earlier, were now trapped under the rubble. He tried to lift it, but it was too heavy. He called their names.

“No one replied," Mohammed said in an interview. “I never saw them again."

The strike left Mohammed alone in Gaza. From that day his uncle, who lives in Denmark, set to work to get him out.

The seven-month-old war has taken a heavy toll on the children who make up nearly half the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.2 million. It isn’t just those who have died, whose numbers are estimated in the thousands, according to Palestinian health authorities. Many like Mohammed have been wounded and orphaned, left to wander across the enclave’s broken landscape alone.

There is no real data on how many children have lost their parents during the war, owing to the scale of mass displacement and the near-collapse of medical and social services. The United Nations children’s agency, Unicef, estimates there could be some 17,000 unaccompanied children in Gaza based on patterns observed in other conflicts.

They have become so common that medical teams have given them the acronym WCNSF, or Wounded Child, No Surviving Family. Sometimes doctors can only refer to children with numbers, Child Trauma 1 or Child Trauma 2.

Before Hamas triggered the war by leading an attack on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 Israelis, including many children, Mohammed lived in an apartment in the Tel el-Hawa area of Gaza City with his parents, his 8-year-old sister and his 4-year-old brother. When Israel sent troops and tanks into their neighborhood early in the invasion, the Shaheens fled, relocating to a single room in Nuseirat further south.

On Dec. 5, Mohammed’s father, Hussam, an architectural engineer, messaged his brother Hussein Shaheen in Denmark asking for help.

“The situation here is so catastrophic no words can describe it," Hussam wrote in a Facebook message. “Can I help you get out of Gaza?" Shaheen replied.

He never got the chance. Two days later, Shaheen was at home when he saw television footage of an Israeli bombing in Nuseirat. He frantically called his brother. There was no response. That evening, he learned from friends in Gaza that his brother had been killed with his family. Israel’s military didn’t respond to a request for comment.

That same night, Shaheen heard the astonishing news from his surviving brother in Gaza that Mohammed had been pulled from the rubble alive. Familial instinct kicked in. He set out on a quest to evacuate Mohammed from Gaza and bring him to Denmark.

The first step was to figure out where Mohammed was. It would take a lot of luck. There is little authority or order in the Gaza Strip. Its police force, which Israeli troops have repeatedly targeted because they consider it part of Hamas, has largely dispersed. Its hospital system is in chaos. Rescue crews struggle to operate amid the widespread destruction and ongoing fighting, let alone keep track of patients or deal with relatives’ inquiries.

Barefoot children roam the rubble-strewn streets alone. Teenagers care for younger siblings in overcrowded shelters. Babies and toddlers are treated in broken hospitals with no adult to care for them, and their identities are often a mystery. One baby girl, just a few weeks old, was found by rescuers up a tree, blown there by a blast, according to the authorities at the hospital where she was taken. Another was found beside a collapsed building, covered in dust, clutching a doll and weeping. “She kept asking me why they were trying to bomb her doll," said Arvind Das, the team leader in Gaza for the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based nonprofit.

Reuniting such children with family members while a war is still raging is an arduous task that is largely left to medical and charity workers who spread the word through community networks, radio and social media, but often to no avail.

“All I knew was that he was breathing," Shaheen said of Mohammed.

He made some 150 phone calls, finally tracking Mohammed down in a hospital in central Gaza. The boy had shrapnel wounds all over his face and needed urgent surgery to save his eyesight. He was crowded in a hallway with a dozen injured people.

“It was painful," Mohammed told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “They were taking a lot of blood from me."

The next step was getting him out of Gaza, a huge challenge since its borders have been all but closed by the war. Shaheen reached out to aid groups, influential Palestinians and foreign officials—anyone he thought could help sponsor Mohammed’s departure.

The breakthrough came a few weeks later. Shaheen had passed Mohammed’s tale to the Qatar-based television station Al Jazeera, which showed Mohammed in a segment crying in agony, his right eye bandaged. “I am lonely! Don’t touch my face," he screamed. The publicity led to an offer by Turkey to sponsor his evacuation for medical treatment.

Shaheen needed to find a guardian to accompany his nephew on the trip. He reached his surviving brother in Gaza, whose newlywed wife agreed to take up the task.

She and Mohammed rode in an ambulance along Salah-al-Din Road, the strip’s central artery, in a nerve-racking journey to the Egyptian border. Israel had designated the route a safe corridor for civilians evacuating to the south. But locals fleeing along the highway say they have frequently had to dodge military fire, earning it a nickname as the “road of death."

“The road was full of bodies along the way," the orphan’s aunt said.

Mohammed took a military plane in January from Egypt to Ankara, where he and his aunt spent four months at a hotel paid for by the Turkish government. Then—flying a Palestinian flag—he finally landed in Billund, central Denmark.

Mohammed’s wounds are healing. He no longer has the nightmares but the trauma continues to haunt him. Behind the fluorescent-green rims of his sunglasses are scars and deep circles that make him look older than his nine years.

In an earlier interview, his uncle said small things triggered panic attacks. A jigsaw puzzle reminded him of his sister; the smell of cooking, of his mom; a pair of glasses, of his dad. Asked how he felt about the death of his family, Mohammed said, “I will seek revenge."

His uncle looked stunned, helpless to heal his nephew’s suffering.

Yet after his first night in Denmark, Mohammed looked at home. He was busy teaching his younger cousins multiplication tables, feasting on homemade Danish brownies and drinking out of a Spider-Man mug. He was looking forward to visiting cows and drinking some fresh milk. And he longed for the day when he could see his homeland again.

“For sure, when there is no war between Israel and us, I will come back to Gaza," he said. “It’s a beautiful place."

Chao Deng and Abeer Ayyoub contributed to this article.

Write to Benoit Faucon at and Margherita Stancati at

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