Anas Baba for News
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — For days, Nour Al-Banna didn’t know if her babies were dead or alive.
On October 4, Al-Banna gave birth to twin girls – her first children – and named them Leen and Bayan. They were born prematurely and need extra care. They were therefore transferred to Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, a modern facility with a fleet of incubators for newborns.
Al-Banna and her husband visited him often. The girls were getting stronger.
“They reached a point where they were being trained to be nurses,” Al-Banna told News. “Then the war broke out.”
On October 7, Hamas militants crossed the border from Gaza into Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 240 others hostage, according to the Israeli government. Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion of Gaza that killed more than 12,700 people, according to Palestinian health officials.
Al-Shifa Hospital is filled with thousands of war wounded and evacuees. There was fighting very close to the hospital. Israel accuses Hamas of operating a command center in tunnels beneath the hospital and using doctors and patients as human shields.
It was not safe for Al-Banna and her husband to visit him. At first, they could call the nurses and check on their daughters over the phone. But then 4G, phones and internet went down. And under the Israeli blockade, the hospital ran out of fuel to power its generators.
Al-Banna’s twins were among hundreds of patients whose life-saving machines – incubators and ventilators – shut down when Al-Shifa’s electricity was cut. Doctors gathered all the newborns onto hospital beds to keep them warm. But Gaza’s health ministry says eight of the newborns died.
And on November 12, the World Health Organization declared that Al-Shifa had ceased functioning as a hospital.
“I kept thinking, ‘God knows if they are dead or alive,’” Al-Banna recalls.
Occasionally, phone signals would come back, and Al-Banna says her husband managed to convince a nurse to send a video of the babies still alive.
Al-Banna says she was relieved to recognize one of her daughters by a birthmark. She then found their names on a list published by Palestinian health authorities of babies transferred to Egypt.
The girls were among some 31 newborns evacuated from Al-Shifa Hospital on Sunday by doctors from the Palestine Red Crescent and the World Health Organization. They were taken by ambulance to Emirates Hospital in Rafah, where 28 of them were deemed ill enough to enter Egypt. — safe and to receive the care they needed.
“They were not withdrawn too soon,” said Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson. “It was very difficult for staff to give them adequate nutrition and keep them warm. None of the babies had parents with them, so they had no access to breast milk.”
On Monday, Al-Banna was reunited with her daughters at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt. The mother sat in the back of an ambulance with her daughters, who wore blue fleece hats, bundled under blankets, all making the journey to Egypt together.
They were later flown from the Egyptian side of the Gaza border to the capital, Cairo, for further treatment, Harris says.
In the Rafah ambulance, with Al-Banna and her two daughters, were four other premature babies. She doesn’t know who they belong to.
News counted only four parents, including Al-Banna — all mothers, no fathers — accompanying the convoy of 28 evacuated infants on Monday. Poor communications in Gaza have made it difficult for doctors to contact many of the babies’ parents.
It is not known how many relatives are still alive.
So Al-Banna says she will care for as many of these other babies as she can, throughout their journey out of this war.
Anas Baba reported from Rafah. Lauren Frayer reported from Tel Aviv and Ruth Sherlock from Rome.