The story of Yazan Kafarneh, the boy who starved to death in Gaza
Tareq S. HajjajMarch 25, 2024
Yazan Kafarneh after dying of starvation. (Photo: Rabee' Abu Naqirah)
Yazan Kafarneh after dying of starvation. (Photo: Rabee’ Abu Naqirah)
This is not a photo of a mummy or an embalmed body retrieved from one of Gaza’s ancient cemeteries. This is a photo of Yazan Kafarneh, a child who died of severe malnutrition during Israel’s genocidal war on the Gaza Strip.

Yazan’s family now lives in the Rab’a School in the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood in Rafah City. His father, Sharif Kafarneh, along with his mother, Marwa, and his three younger brothers, had fled Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza early on in the war.

Yazan Kafarneh died at the age of nine, the eldest of four brothers — Mouin, 6, Ramzi, 4, and Muhammad, born during the war in a shelter four months ago.

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Living in conditions not fit for human habitation, the grieving family had witnessed Yazan’s death before their eyes. It didn’t happen all at once but unfolded gradually over time, his frail body wasting away one day after another until there was nothing left of Yazan but skin and bones.

Sharif was unable to do anything for his son. He died due to a congenital illness that required a special dietary regimen to keep him healthy. Israel’s systematic prevention of food from reaching the civilian population in Gaza meant that severe malnutrition — suffered by most children in the besieged enclave — in the case of Yazan meant death.

“We first left from Beit Hanoun to Jabalia refugee camp,” Sharif told Mondoweiss. “Then the occupation called us again and warned us against staying where we were. So we left for Gaza City. Then, the occupation forced us to flee further south, and we did.”

Yazan Kafarneh's parents and three brothers in their shelter in Rafah. (Photo: Tareq Hajjaj/Mondoweiss)
Sharif Kafarneh’ (left), his wife Marwa (right), and their three surviving sons (center) in their shelter in Rafah. (Photo: Tareq Hajjaj/Mondoweiss)
“If it weren’t for Yazan, I would have never left my home,” Sharif maintained. “Yazan required special care and nutrition.”

Yazan suffered from a congenital form of muscular atrophy that made movement and speech difficult, but Sharif said that it never caused him much grief in his nine short years before the war.

“He just had advanced nutritional needs,” Sharif explained. “But getting that food for him was never an issue before the war.”

It was a point of pride for Sharif that he, a taxi driver, had never left his child wanting or deprived.

“That changed in the war. The specific foods that he needed were cut off,” he said. “For instance, Yazan had to have milk and bananas for dinner every day. He can’t go a day without it, and sometimes he can have only bananas. This is what the doctors told us.”

“After the war, I couldn’t get a single banana,” Sharif continued. “And for lunch, he had to have boiled vegetables and fruits that were pureed in a blender. We had no electricity for the blender, and there were no fruits or vegetables anymore.”

As for breakfast, Yazan’s regimen demanded that he eat eggs. “Of course, there aren’t any more eggs in Rafah City,” Sharif said. “No fruits, no vegetables, no eggs, no bananas, nothing.”

“But our child’s needs were never a problem for us,” Sharif rushed to add. “We loved taking care of him. He was the spoiled child of the family, and his younger brothers loved him and took care of him, too. God gave me a living so I could take care of him.”

Due to his special needs, charitable societies used to visit Yazan’s home in Beit Hanoun before the war, providing various treatments such as physical therapy and speech therapy. All in all, Yazan had a functional, happy childhood.

‘He got thinner and thinner’

The family continued to take care of Yazan throughout the war. They tried to make do with what they could find, trying as much as possible to find alternatives to the foods Yazan required. “I replaced bananas with halawa [a tahini-based confection], and I replaced eggs with bread soaked in tea,” Sharif said. “But these foods did not contain the nutrients that Yazan needed.”

In addition to his nutritional needs, Yazan had specific medicines to take. Sharif used to bring him brain and muscle stimulants that helped him stay alive and mobile, allowing him to move around and crawl throughout their home. Those medicines ran out during the second week of the war.

With the lack of nutrition and medication, his health took a turn for the worse. “I noticed him getting sick, and his body was becoming emaciated,” Sharif recounts. “He got thinner and thinner.”

His family took him to al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah, where his health continued to deteriorate over the course of eleven days.

“Even after we took him to the hospital, they couldn’t do anything for him,” Sharif continued. “All they were able to give him were IV fluids, and when his situation got worse, the hospital staff placed a feeding tube in his nose.”

“My son required a tube with a 14-unit measurement, but all the hospital had was an 8-unit,” he added.

When asked what was the most important factor that led to the deterioration of his son’s condition, Sharif said that it was the environment he lived in. “Before the war, he was in the right environment. After, everything was wrong. He was in his own home, but then he was uprooted to a shelter in Rafah.”

“The situation we’re living in isn’t fit for humans, let alone a sick child,” Sharif explained. “In the camps, people would light fires to keep themselves warm, but the smoke would cause Yazan to cough and suffocate, and we weren’t able to tell them to turn their fires off because everyone was so cold.”

Dr. Muhammad al-Sabe’, a pediatric surgeon in Rafah who works at the al-Awda, al-Najjar, and al-Kuwaiti hospitals, took a special interest in Yazan’s case.

“The harsh conditions Yazan had to endure, including malnutrition, were the main factors contributing to the deterioration of his health and his ultimate death,” Dr. al-Sabe’ told Mondoweiss. “This is a genetic and congenital illness, and it requires special care every day, including specific proteins, IV medicines, and daily physical therapy, which isn’t available at Rafah.”

“If things don’t change, if they stay the way they are, we’re going to witness mass death among children.”
Dr. Muhammad al-Sabe’normal
Dr. al-Sabe’ said that most foods administered to patients who cannot feed themselves through feeding tubes are unavailable in Gaza. “The occupation prevents these specific foods and medicines from coming in,” he explained. “Including a medicine called Ensure.”

Ensure is a special nutritional supplement used in medical settings for what is called “enteral nutrition” — feeding patients through a nasal tube.

“Special treatment for patients, especially children, is nonexistent,” Dr. al-Sabe’ added. “We don’t even have diapers, let alone baby formula and nutritional supplements.”

“If things don’t change, if they stay the way they are, we’re going to witness mass death among children,” he stressed. “If any child doesn’t receive nutrition for an entire week, that child will eventually die. And even if malnourished children are eventually provided with nutrition, they will likely suffer lifelong health consequences.”

“If medicine is cut off from children who need it for one week, this will also likely lead to their death,” he continued.

Yazan Kafarneh after dying of starvation. (Photo: Rabee' Abu Naqirah)
Images of Yazan Kafarneh’s emaciated body circulated widely on social media. (Photo: Rabee’ Abu Naqirah)
Children disproportionately affected by famine

According to a UNICEF humanitarian situation report on March 22, 2.23 million people in Gaza suffer at least from “acute food insecurity,” while half of that population (1.1 million people) suffers from “catastrophic food insecurity,” meaning that “famine is imminent for half of the population.”

An earlier report in December 2023 had already concluded that all children in Gaza under five years old (estimated to be 335,000 children) are “at high risk of severe malnutrition and preventable death.” UNICEF’s most recent March 22 report estimates that the famine threshold for “acute food insecurity” has already been “far exceeded,” while it is highly likely that the famine threshold for “acute malnutrition” has also been exceeded. Moreover, UNICEF said that the Famine Review Committee predicted that famine would manifest in Gaza anywhere between March and May of this year.

Dr. al-Sabe’ stresses that such dire conditions disproportionately affect children, who have advanced nutritional needs compared to adults.

“Their bodies are weak, and they don’t have large stores of muscle and fat,” he explained. “Even one day of no food for a young child will lead to consequences that are difficult to control in the future.”

“An adult male may go a week without food before signs of malnutrition begin to show,” he continued. “Not so with children. Their muscle mass increases whenever they eat, which in turn leads to a greater need for nutrients.”

The lack of nutrients means that children will grow weak, the pediatric surgeon said, and that they will quickly begin to exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, sleepiness, diarrhea, vomiting, anemia, sunken eyes, and joint pains. For the same reason, Dr. al-Sabe maintained, children also respond to treatment fairly quickly — but “on the condition that they have not experienced malnutrition for more than a week.”

After one week, reversing the effects of malnutrition becomes much more difficult. Al-Sabe’ asserts that children’s digestive tracts will slow down, they might begin to suffer from kidney failure, and their bellies can swell with fluids.

That is what is particularly devastating for Gaza — over 335,000 children have undergone varying degrees of extreme malnutrition for months on end. The consequences are difficult to fathom on a population-wide level and for future generations. As of the time of writing, over 30 children have already died due to malnutrition in northern Gaza, but the real number is likely much higher given the lack of reporting in many areas in the north.

‘He didn’t need a miracle to save him’

Yazan’s mother, Marwa Kafarneh, could barely contain her tears as she spoke of her son.

“He was a normal boy despite his illness,” she told Mondoweiss. “He played with his brothers. He crawled and moved about, and he could open closets and use the phone, and he would watch things on it for hours.”

“He could have lived a long life, a normal life,” she continued. “His father would have brought him everything that he needed. He wouldn’t have had to feel hungry for even a single day.”

When she saw that the images of her son’s emaciated body had gone viral on social media, Marwa said that she preferred death over looking at the photos. “My eldest son died in front of my eyes, in front of all of our eyes,” she said. “We weren’t able to save him. And he didn’t need a miracle to save him either. All he needed was the food that we’ve always been able to provide for him.”

Reflecting as she cried, she added: “But finding that food in Gaza today takes nothing less than a miracle.”

Tareq S. Hajjaj
Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union. He studied English Literature at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. He started his career in journalism in 2015, working as a news writer and translator for the local newspaper Donia al-Watan. He has reported for Elbadi, Middle East Eye, and Al-Monitor. Follow him on Twitter at @Tareqshajjaj.

BEFORE YOU GO – At Mondoweiss, we understand the power of telling Palestinian stories. For 17 years, we have pushed back when the mainstream media published lies or echoed politicians’ hateful rhetoric. Now, Palestinian voices are more important than ever.

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Support our journalists with a donation today.

https://mondoweiss.net/2024/03/the-story-of-yazan-kafarneh-the-boy-who-starved-to-death-in-gaza/
The story of Yazan Kafarneh, the boy who starved to death in Gaza Tareq S. HajjajMarch 25, 2024 Yazan Kafarneh after dying of starvation. (Photo: Rabee' Abu Naqirah) Yazan Kafarneh after dying of starvation. (Photo: Rabee’ Abu Naqirah) This is not a photo of a mummy or an embalmed body retrieved from one of Gaza’s ancient cemeteries. This is a photo of Yazan Kafarneh, a child who died of severe malnutrition during Israel’s genocidal war on the Gaza Strip. Yazan’s family now lives in the Rab’a School in the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood in Rafah City. His father, Sharif Kafarneh, along with his mother, Marwa, and his three younger brothers, had fled Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza early on in the war. Yazan Kafarneh died at the age of nine, the eldest of four brothers — Mouin, 6, Ramzi, 4, and Muhammad, born during the war in a shelter four months ago. Advertisement Watch now: ANGELA DAVIS on Witnessing Palestine with Frank Barat Living in conditions not fit for human habitation, the grieving family had witnessed Yazan’s death before their eyes. It didn’t happen all at once but unfolded gradually over time, his frail body wasting away one day after another until there was nothing left of Yazan but skin and bones. Sharif was unable to do anything for his son. He died due to a congenital illness that required a special dietary regimen to keep him healthy. Israel’s systematic prevention of food from reaching the civilian population in Gaza meant that severe malnutrition — suffered by most children in the besieged enclave — in the case of Yazan meant death. “We first left from Beit Hanoun to Jabalia refugee camp,” Sharif told Mondoweiss. “Then the occupation called us again and warned us against staying where we were. So we left for Gaza City. Then, the occupation forced us to flee further south, and we did.” Yazan Kafarneh's parents and three brothers in their shelter in Rafah. (Photo: Tareq Hajjaj/Mondoweiss) Sharif Kafarneh’ (left), his wife Marwa (right), and their three surviving sons (center) in their shelter in Rafah. (Photo: Tareq Hajjaj/Mondoweiss) “If it weren’t for Yazan, I would have never left my home,” Sharif maintained. “Yazan required special care and nutrition.” Yazan suffered from a congenital form of muscular atrophy that made movement and speech difficult, but Sharif said that it never caused him much grief in his nine short years before the war. “He just had advanced nutritional needs,” Sharif explained. “But getting that food for him was never an issue before the war.” It was a point of pride for Sharif that he, a taxi driver, had never left his child wanting or deprived. “That changed in the war. The specific foods that he needed were cut off,” he said. “For instance, Yazan had to have milk and bananas for dinner every day. He can’t go a day without it, and sometimes he can have only bananas. This is what the doctors told us.” “After the war, I couldn’t get a single banana,” Sharif continued. “And for lunch, he had to have boiled vegetables and fruits that were pureed in a blender. We had no electricity for the blender, and there were no fruits or vegetables anymore.” As for breakfast, Yazan’s regimen demanded that he eat eggs. “Of course, there aren’t any more eggs in Rafah City,” Sharif said. “No fruits, no vegetables, no eggs, no bananas, nothing.” “But our child’s needs were never a problem for us,” Sharif rushed to add. “We loved taking care of him. He was the spoiled child of the family, and his younger brothers loved him and took care of him, too. God gave me a living so I could take care of him.” Due to his special needs, charitable societies used to visit Yazan’s home in Beit Hanoun before the war, providing various treatments such as physical therapy and speech therapy. All in all, Yazan had a functional, happy childhood. ‘He got thinner and thinner’ The family continued to take care of Yazan throughout the war. They tried to make do with what they could find, trying as much as possible to find alternatives to the foods Yazan required. “I replaced bananas with halawa [a tahini-based confection], and I replaced eggs with bread soaked in tea,” Sharif said. “But these foods did not contain the nutrients that Yazan needed.” In addition to his nutritional needs, Yazan had specific medicines to take. Sharif used to bring him brain and muscle stimulants that helped him stay alive and mobile, allowing him to move around and crawl throughout their home. Those medicines ran out during the second week of the war. With the lack of nutrition and medication, his health took a turn for the worse. “I noticed him getting sick, and his body was becoming emaciated,” Sharif recounts. “He got thinner and thinner.” His family took him to al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah, where his health continued to deteriorate over the course of eleven days. “Even after we took him to the hospital, they couldn’t do anything for him,” Sharif continued. “All they were able to give him were IV fluids, and when his situation got worse, the hospital staff placed a feeding tube in his nose.” “My son required a tube with a 14-unit measurement, but all the hospital had was an 8-unit,” he added. When asked what was the most important factor that led to the deterioration of his son’s condition, Sharif said that it was the environment he lived in. “Before the war, he was in the right environment. After, everything was wrong. He was in his own home, but then he was uprooted to a shelter in Rafah.” “The situation we’re living in isn’t fit for humans, let alone a sick child,” Sharif explained. “In the camps, people would light fires to keep themselves warm, but the smoke would cause Yazan to cough and suffocate, and we weren’t able to tell them to turn their fires off because everyone was so cold.” Dr. Muhammad al-Sabe’, a pediatric surgeon in Rafah who works at the al-Awda, al-Najjar, and al-Kuwaiti hospitals, took a special interest in Yazan’s case. “The harsh conditions Yazan had to endure, including malnutrition, were the main factors contributing to the deterioration of his health and his ultimate death,” Dr. al-Sabe’ told Mondoweiss. “This is a genetic and congenital illness, and it requires special care every day, including specific proteins, IV medicines, and daily physical therapy, which isn’t available at Rafah.” “If things don’t change, if they stay the way they are, we’re going to witness mass death among children.” Dr. Muhammad al-Sabe’normal Dr. al-Sabe’ said that most foods administered to patients who cannot feed themselves through feeding tubes are unavailable in Gaza. “The occupation prevents these specific foods and medicines from coming in,” he explained. “Including a medicine called Ensure.” Ensure is a special nutritional supplement used in medical settings for what is called “enteral nutrition” — feeding patients through a nasal tube. “Special treatment for patients, especially children, is nonexistent,” Dr. al-Sabe’ added. “We don’t even have diapers, let alone baby formula and nutritional supplements.” “If things don’t change, if they stay the way they are, we’re going to witness mass death among children,” he stressed. “If any child doesn’t receive nutrition for an entire week, that child will eventually die. And even if malnourished children are eventually provided with nutrition, they will likely suffer lifelong health consequences.” “If medicine is cut off from children who need it for one week, this will also likely lead to their death,” he continued. Yazan Kafarneh after dying of starvation. (Photo: Rabee' Abu Naqirah) Images of Yazan Kafarneh’s emaciated body circulated widely on social media. (Photo: Rabee’ Abu Naqirah) Children disproportionately affected by famine According to a UNICEF humanitarian situation report on March 22, 2.23 million people in Gaza suffer at least from “acute food insecurity,” while half of that population (1.1 million people) suffers from “catastrophic food insecurity,” meaning that “famine is imminent for half of the population.” An earlier report in December 2023 had already concluded that all children in Gaza under five years old (estimated to be 335,000 children) are “at high risk of severe malnutrition and preventable death.” UNICEF’s most recent March 22 report estimates that the famine threshold for “acute food insecurity” has already been “far exceeded,” while it is highly likely that the famine threshold for “acute malnutrition” has also been exceeded. Moreover, UNICEF said that the Famine Review Committee predicted that famine would manifest in Gaza anywhere between March and May of this year. Dr. al-Sabe’ stresses that such dire conditions disproportionately affect children, who have advanced nutritional needs compared to adults. “Their bodies are weak, and they don’t have large stores of muscle and fat,” he explained. “Even one day of no food for a young child will lead to consequences that are difficult to control in the future.” “An adult male may go a week without food before signs of malnutrition begin to show,” he continued. “Not so with children. Their muscle mass increases whenever they eat, which in turn leads to a greater need for nutrients.” The lack of nutrients means that children will grow weak, the pediatric surgeon said, and that they will quickly begin to exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, sleepiness, diarrhea, vomiting, anemia, sunken eyes, and joint pains. For the same reason, Dr. al-Sabe maintained, children also respond to treatment fairly quickly — but “on the condition that they have not experienced malnutrition for more than a week.” After one week, reversing the effects of malnutrition becomes much more difficult. Al-Sabe’ asserts that children’s digestive tracts will slow down, they might begin to suffer from kidney failure, and their bellies can swell with fluids. That is what is particularly devastating for Gaza — over 335,000 children have undergone varying degrees of extreme malnutrition for months on end. The consequences are difficult to fathom on a population-wide level and for future generations. As of the time of writing, over 30 children have already died due to malnutrition in northern Gaza, but the real number is likely much higher given the lack of reporting in many areas in the north. ‘He didn’t need a miracle to save him’ Yazan’s mother, Marwa Kafarneh, could barely contain her tears as she spoke of her son. “He was a normal boy despite his illness,” she told Mondoweiss. “He played with his brothers. He crawled and moved about, and he could open closets and use the phone, and he would watch things on it for hours.” “He could have lived a long life, a normal life,” she continued. “His father would have brought him everything that he needed. He wouldn’t have had to feel hungry for even a single day.” When she saw that the images of her son’s emaciated body had gone viral on social media, Marwa said that she preferred death over looking at the photos. “My eldest son died in front of my eyes, in front of all of our eyes,” she said. “We weren’t able to save him. And he didn’t need a miracle to save him either. All he needed was the food that we’ve always been able to provide for him.” Reflecting as she cried, she added: “But finding that food in Gaza today takes nothing less than a miracle.” Tareq S. Hajjaj Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union. He studied English Literature at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. He started his career in journalism in 2015, working as a news writer and translator for the local newspaper Donia al-Watan. He has reported for Elbadi, Middle East Eye, and Al-Monitor. Follow him on Twitter at @Tareqshajjaj. BEFORE YOU GO – At Mondoweiss, we understand the power of telling Palestinian stories. For 17 years, we have pushed back when the mainstream media published lies or echoed politicians’ hateful rhetoric. Now, Palestinian voices are more important than ever. Our traffic has increased ten times since October 7, and we need your help to cover our increased expenses. Support our journalists with a donation today. https://mondoweiss.net/2024/03/the-story-of-yazan-kafarneh-the-boy-who-starved-to-death-in-gaza/
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The story of Yazan Kafarneh, the boy who starved to death in Gaza
9-year-old Yazan Kafarneh died of a congenital illness turned deadly by severe malnutrition under Israel’s genocidal siege. “He didn’t need a miracle to save him,” cries his mother. “All he needed was the food we’ve always been able to provide him.”
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