Back to school for the first time on Saturday, January 24, since Israel’s deadly onslaught in Gaza, Anas Abbas’s brown eyes are looking away.
"They destroyed our house and killed five of my neighbors," Abbas, a shy 12-year-old pupil at Beit Lahiya primary school, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "The Jews came very close to us."
Abbas is among 200,000 Gazan children who returned to schools Saturday for the first time since the 22-day deadly Israeli offensive.
Children swarmed into the school’s wide courtyard with their oversized backpacks, noisily running and playing beneath an upper-storey classroom scorched by an Israeli shell.
As the children were slowly brought to order, it soon became clear that many of them bore the unseen wounds of the war.
"Come forward if your mother or father was martyred," headmaster Riad Maliha announced through a megaphone to the classes lined up outside for morning assembly.
"Come forward if your house was destroyed."
More than 20 students walked to the front to register with UN officials so their families could receive aid.
Israeli troops killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, including 437 children, and wounded 5,450 others, in 22 days of air, sea and land attacks in Gaza.
Both Israel and Palestinian resistance groups declared unilateral ceasefires last Sunday and Israeli troops had completely withdrawn by Wednesday. But vast swathes of the territory have been left in ruins, including thousands of homes.
The first few days of school will be dedicated to counsel the traumatized Gaza children, with teachers trying to help them express themselves.
"In the classes the teachers will encourage them to talk about what happened, or to draw pictures or to write about it," headmaster Maliha said.
Some 200 counselors are deployed by UN refugee agency UNRWA, which provides basic aid and services to most of the 1.6 million people in Gaza, to help the children.
"Imagine what the conversations are going to be like," UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said.
"There are going to be thousands of traumatized children coming to school today."
On the upper floor of the school, the children drift in and out of the burned-out classroom, chalk graffitti scribbled on its blackened walls and charred blankets and broken desks littering the floor.
In the classroom next door, the teacher invites the children to come up to the front and tell their stories.
The first boy to volunteer recalls when the house next to his was blown up.
"The door was dancing. The windows were dancing," he says as the other children break into laughter.
Khitam Aziz, the school counselor, says the children ask about the scorched classroom upstairs and the holes in the walls left by artillery rounds.
"They ask me why they shelled the school, and tell me they worry it will be attacked again," Aziz says.
"But we tell them the Jews will not attack the school. They should feel safe. They should play."
The deadly Israeli attacks left many Gazan children desperate of reaching peace with Israel.
"The chances of peace are zero. No peace is possible," a girl pupil at the Beach Preparatory School told Reuters.
Asked if the current ceasefire would endure, most girls said they did not think so.
Asked if there could be peace with Israel one day, most said there could not. None said it was possible.
"Israel attacked at the time of our exams because it wants to destroy our education," a 15-year-old girl pupil said.
"It is not Hamas they want to kill. It is all Palestinians and their resistance."
"Israel had its own reasons," said another pupil. "They are to have an election. Our blood is the ink on the voting papers."
Many Gazans accuse the West of being callous to their suffering.
"They cry for Israelis because they lose a fingernail. They don’t care if Palestinians get their heads blown off," said teacher Susan Mosleh.
Her colleague Nuha Abdulati agrees, citing the West’s indifference to the months-long choking Israeli siege on Gaza.
"We need the siege to end," she said. "We need the borders to open. We can take care of ourselves then. We are not begging."
(IslamOnline.net and News Agencies)