Palestinians evacuate the area following an Israeli airstrike
on the Sousi mosque in Gaza City on October 9, 2023
“Writing my children’s names on their bodies is the solution, so that the world will know them.”
- Mohammed Abu Odeh
On October 22, over two weeks into the bombardment of Gaza, I learned that parents are writing the names of their children on their children’s arms and legs. The parents hope their names will identify them if their bodies or parts of their bodies are found at bomb sites.
Before I learned this, I’d read the reports of children being dismembered by Israeli missiles and found in the wreckage. I’d also read the reports of the thousands of children who’d had to flee their homes, who’d been orphaned, who’d been killed. At least 6,600 dead as of today, December 4, fifty-nine days into the fighting.
Yet when I read about these parents inscribing their children’s names on their children’s limbs—names they gave them at their births, names they say every day of their lives—I broke.
I am a parent and a writer. I can’t imagine writing any words more devastating than my child’s name on my child flesh, meant to be read when he is dead, when pieces of him are found.
“When my children ask me why I’m doing this,” says Mohammed Abu Odeh. “I tell them that it is for their safety and protection.”
Abu Odeh is from the Al-Shati refugee camp in Northern Gaza. He has two children. He is explaining to reporters from Al Jazeera that no child should have to live hearing bombs explode above them, needing to worry about whether they’ll be buried under rubble.
“Can anyone in the world bear the thought of what our children are going through?”
As the days continue and the bombings continue and the deaths continue, I see ever more clearly that the answer to Abu Odeh’s question is yes.
There are many people in the world, many in my own country, who are not only bearing the horrors that Palestinian children are going through, but who are also supporting this attack on the civilians of Gaza.
I see ever more clearly how they—how we—have hardened our hearts even to the mass killing of children. We who are parents. We who cannot bear the thought of such horrors happening to our own children.
When I learn about these parents writing their children’s names on their children’s limbs, I try to share this news with my spouse. It’s morning, before school, and our own child is in the next room, playing with his electric toothbrush.
As I tell her, she begins to cry and says, “Stop it.”
I stop and, later, I think to myself that this is exactly what has to happen: it has to stop.
It hasn’t stopped.
“At that moment, I thought that if the house was hit by a severe bombing, my children would die, and no one would be able to identify them.”
The moment Sara al-Khalidi is describing happened in her living room in Gaza City, where she huddled with her four children during an Israeli bombardment that lasted the entire night. She goes on to describe fleeing south to Khan Younis, where she hoped she and her family would be safer.
Once there, al-Khalidi saw her relatives writing the names of their children on their bodies and, later, saw a doctor at al-Shifa Hospital doing the same to the children there. Until then, al-Khalidi had resisted doing this with her own daughters. The thought of it, she said, made her cry. She worried it would bring bad luck.
“The world should know about these children who were murdered by Israel,” al-Khalid says, “because they are not numbers, but names, stories and dreams killed by the Israeli occupation in Gaza.”
Yes. They are not numbers. They are children, as full of stories and dreams, as fully named, as our own children. As my own child.
It’s knowing this, it’s knowing and loving my own child, that makes the thought of what these children are going through unbearable.
My child’s name is Roland Sean LeMay.
I write these words here, as a parent and a witness to the parents in Gaza, to the love they bear for their children in the midst of what’s unbearable.
Note: One of my aims in this essay is to amplify the voices of Palestinian parents. I’m grateful to Linah Alsaafin and Ruwaida Amer, journalists at Al Jeezera, for their reporting on the people of Gaza and for this report from which I’ve drawn the accounts about and quotations from Mohammed Abu Odeh and Sara al-Khalidi.
Eric LeMay is an essayist and a parent. He lives in Athens, Ohio. One of his most recent essays, "Hole," appears in RiverTeeth.
This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"