“Dying before the eyes of the world”

Melissa Fleming
4 min readDec 29, 2023


Ratouja turned 5 during the war in Gaza. Her Birthday wish?: that the war would end and the rockets would stop, and that the sweet children wouldn’t die.”

A few weeks back, during the brief humanitarian pause in Gaza, I received a heartbreaking message.

It was from a contact, Shoukri. He sent me two videos of his young daughter, filmed somewhere in Gaza, on her birthday. Lit by a single candle, the little girl tells the camera her birthday wish: an end to the war so she can go back to kindergarten.

“Today is my birthday,” she says. “But I can’t have a birthday party because of the war … I wish the war would end and the rockets would stop, and that the sweet children wouldn’t die.”

I was already devastated by the horrific attacks and kidnappings by Hamas in Israel on 7 October and then Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza. The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza hit me on a personal level too — over 140 UN staff have been killed, many with their families. My heart also broke for the little girl, and for Shoukri, who has experienced more tragedy than I thought possible for one person to bear.

When I first met Shoukri in Athens nine years ago, he was in a terrible state. I spoke to him for my book, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea, the story of Doaa, a Syrian refugee who saved a baby from a shipwreck off Malta that killed 500 people.

Shoukri was one of the 11 survivors. He and his family had been among the many Palestinians on board. When the ship sank, hundreds drowned instantly, the rest over the following agonizing days at sea. Among the dead were Shoukri’s wife, his toddler son, and his five-year-old daughter, whom he had been unable to save.

I’ll never forget our awful meeting at the UNHCR office. Shoukri sat across from me, a sweet but utterly broken man. He wept uncontrollably as he showed me pictures of his late daughter’s bedroom — decorated in pretty, girlish pink — and of the meals he used to cook for his family. Now they were gone, he said, he felt responsible.

All of us present were deeply moved by Shoukri’s terrible loss. Despite his anguish, he was able to provide a crucial eyewitness account of the dreadful aftermath of the shipwreck, confirming many details Dooa had related. I’m so grateful for his help in telling her vital story.

We stayed in touch, and I followed his path for many years. Wanting to be near his beloved mother, Shoukri returned to Gaza, where he rebuilt his life. He found love again and had a little girl, whom he named Ratouja, after the daughter he lost at sea.

Then came 7 October, and the horrific massacre and kidnapping of civilians in Israel. When war returned to Gaza, I checked in with Shoukri and his young family. Over the next weeks, as the violence intensified, his replies grew increasingly desperate.

“Unfortunately, I am not safe. Everything in Gaza is scary,” he wrote. “The hardest thing is for children to scream out of fear and horror. We are alive, but we are not well.”

The brief humanitarian pause, along with his daughter’s birthday message, brought a glimmer of hope. But then war returned. The next I heard, Shoukri’s wife’s entire family had been killed by a bomb.

Then, just before Christmas, Shoukri sent me a video appeal. I stared at the screen in horror — his head was bloody and bandaged, his face was swollen and bruised. One of his eyes was forced shut, bulging, red and black.

Shoukri told me he had been injured after the next-door apartment had been bombed. Then he said he had fled, together with his wife and daughter, to Rafah. Since then, I haven’t heard from them. I remain deeply concerned for their safety.

It’s no secret that Rafah can offer scant shelter to civilians right now. United Nations humanitarians — themselves displaced by war — have for weeks been pleading from there for help, saying they cannot possibly support all those in need.

I hope Shoukri and his family are safe and getting medical care and food assistance from my colleagues there. I hope they survive this catastrophe and rebuild their lives, once again, in peace. And I hope his daughter gets her birthday wish; an end to the violence so she can go back to kindergarten and play with her friends.

Not long ago, I wrote to Shoukri assuring him that the UN is calling for this madness to stop. His devastating reply: “Unfortunately they do not hear you. Our children are dying before the eyes of the world.”

I know Shoukri wants the world to hear his story, and so I’ve shared it — in the hope that it will be heard.



Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.