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The Gaza war's youngest evacuees reach safety in Egypt — many without their parents

Newborn babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip and crossed into Egypt on Nov. 20, 2023.
Anas Baba for NPR
Newborn babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip and crossed into Egypt on Nov. 20, 2023.

RAFAH, the Gaza Strip — For days, Nour Al-Banna didn't know if her babies were dead or alive.

On Oct. 4, Al-Banna gave birth to twin girls — her first children — and named them Leen and Bayan. They were born prematurely and needed extra care. So they were transferred to Gaza City's Al-Shifa Hospital, a modern facility with a fleet of incubators for newborns.

Al-Banna and her husband visited often. The girls were getting stronger.

"They reached a stage where they were being trained to nurse," Al-Banna tells NPR. "Then the war happened."

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants crossed 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 into Gaza that has killed more than 12,700 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

Al-Shifa Hospital filled with thousands of war wounded and evacuees. There was fighting very close to the hospital. Israel accuses Hamas of running a command center in tunnels under the hospital, and of using doctors and patients as human shields.

It wasn't safe for Al-Banna and her husband to visit. At first, they were able to call the nurses and check on their daughters' status by phone. But then 4G, phones and internet went down. And under an Israeli blockade, the hospital ran out of fuel to power its generators.

Al-Banna's twins were among hundreds of patients whose lifesaving machines — incubators and ventilators — turned off when Al-Shifa's electricity went out. Doctors crowded all the newborns onto hospital beds together, to keep them warm. But Gaza's Health Ministry says eight of the newborns died.

And on Nov. 12, the World Health Organization said Al-Shifa ceased to function 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 get a nurse to send a video of the babies that were still alive.

Al-Banna says she was relieved to recognize one of her daughters from a birthmark. Then she found their names on a list published by Palestinian health officials of babies being transferred to Egypt.

The girls were among some 31 newborns evacuated Sunday from Al-Shifa Hospital by medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent and the World Health Organization. They were transported in ambulances to the Emirates Hospital in Rafah, where28 of them were deemed sick enough to qualify to cross into Egypt — to safety, and to receive the care they needed.

"They were not taken out a minute too soon," says Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson. "It had been very difficult for the staff to give them adequate nutrition, and keep them warm. None of the babies had parents with them, so they didn't have access to any 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 were wearing blue fleece hats, bundled under blankets, all making the journey to Egypt together.

Later, they were flown from the Egyptian side of the Gaza border to the capital Cairo for further care, Harris says.

In the ambulance at Rafah with Al-Banna and her two daughters were four other premature babies. She doesn't know who they belong to.

NPR counted only four parents, including Al-Banna — all mothers, no fathers — accompanying the convoy of 28 infant evacuees Monday. Poor communications in Gaza have made it difficult for medics to contact many of the babies' parents.

It's not known how many of the parents are still alive.

So Al-Banna says she will look after as many of these other babies as she's able, on their journey out of this war.

Anas Baba reported from Rafah. Lauren Frayer reported from Tel Aviv, and Ruth Sherlock reported from Rome.

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Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.