The children scarred by war

Syed, aged 12

A wasteland of rubble still bears testament to last summer's conflict between Israel and Gaza. But there are deeper scars - damage that can't be seen and may never heal.

A week after the fighting began, Syed's life was shattered on the day the 12-year-old, his 11-year-old brother Mohamed, and their six cousins went to Gaza's beach to play football.

It was the natural playground for young boys from a family of fishermen which has lived off the sea for generations.

"We didn't know that beach was dangerous," says Syed - his eyes still, round, sad pools, as he remembers 16 July, one of the most harrowing days of the war.

By the end of that day, Mohamed and three of his cousins were dead. An Israeli investigation said its air force mistook the children for Hamas fighters when a pilot fired twice at a "compound" next to the beach.

Syed and the three other boys who survived still show small scars on their legs and disturbing signs of being severely traumatised.

"For the son I lost, my tears will never dry," says his mother. But she fears she lost two sons last summer. "Those left behind are lost like those who died," she laments, as she looks across their small one-bedroom home at Syed, who stares blankly into the distance.

Syed finds it hard to sleep, and too tough to go to school because it reminds him of his brother. Even the sea, which had been a constant reference point in his life, no longer feels safe. "I never used to get scared, but now I do," he tells me as we ride in a speed boat close to the shore and he fiddles nervously with the cords on his life jacket.

Image caption Abdulrahman lost his father and 17 other family members in the conflict

His cousins struggle with even darker emotions. One tried to jump from a window after an angry altercation with his father. Another almost pushed a girl under a bus. They all live with nightmares, and battle just to get through each day.

By the end of the 51-day conflict, 551 Gazan children had lost their lives. Many more lost loved ones. The UN estimates that nearly 400,000 children need counselling. Syed has had some sessions at Gaza's community mental health programme - they help, but it's not enough. Therapy doesn't stand much chance as long as children are acutely aware that the conflict isn't over. They've already lived through three wars in six years.

Aid agencies say none of the nearly 20,000 homes destroyed in the fighting have been rebuilt, and more than 100,000 people remain displaced.

On the Israeli side of the border, children also live with distressing reminders of last summer's fighting, which also killed a young Israeli boy in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz.

"It's so not fair," protests 10-year-old Michal whose home in Nahal Oz lies only about a mile from Gaza. "We can't just keep running away, because it's our home and we need to live here.

"It's not because of us, it's not because of Gaza kids," she says, her eyes narrowing behind bright pink sunglasses.

A few miles away, the southern Israeli town of Sderot, sometimes referred to as the "bomb shelter capital of the world", has been the target of rockets fired from Gaza for 14 years.

Eilon was born the year missiles started landing, and speaks of a childhood "where I didn't grow up as a normal child". He's lived through two rocket attacks in his own neighbourhood in recent years.

His nightmares after last year's war led him to see a trauma counsellor. Months after a ceasefire was agreed, he still kept sleeping in the bomb-proof bedroom that's built in every Israeli home.

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Media captionAgam and Eilon, from Israel, talk about taking refuge in their bomb-proof room

The first time he and his 10-year-old sister Agam summon up enough courage to climb the highest ridge in Sderot, they look at neighbouring Gaza through binoculars.

"Wow, look at the destruction there. It saddens me because there are innocent people there who were killed, but on the other hand there are people there that didn't care about us," remarks Eilon.

"They are the homes of people who want to kill us," adds Agam.

Israel says its 2014 campaign, Operation Protective Edge, was launched to stop rocket attacks from Gaza and destroy a vast network of tunnels, some of which extended into Israeli communities. Hamas, which controls most of Gaza, said it was fighting against Israeli air strikes and incursions, and trying to ease severe restrictions on its crossings with both Israel and Egypt.

But civilians, including children, paid a heavy price. A recent UN investigation said both Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups violated international humanitarian law. Their actions, it said, may have amounted to war crimes.

A report released this week by Save the Children, A Living Nightmare, says the vast majority of children in the hardest-hit area still experience nightmares and bed wetting.

Twelve-year-old Samar's home in a block of flats is one of many places that lie in ruins just next to the border. "I never imagined it would be this bad," she gasps, as she and her siblings wander through the hollowed rooms of their devastated apartment for the first time since it was destroyed in the fighting.

"We had dreams of growing up here with our father," she says as she tries to find her balance on a mound of dust and concrete. Then she collapses in tears.

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Media captionSamar returns to her former home in Gaza

Samar and her family took shelter in a UN school, but her father died, and her mother was seriously injured when Israeli missiles struck the building.

Israel says its forces only targeted infrastructure used by Hamas to attack Israel. But it has been accused of insufficient regard for civilian lives, while Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups are blamed for firing missiles from residential areas.

Twelve-year-old Abdulrahman, the son of a Hamas fighter, lost 17 members of his family. Fifteen homes in his neighbourhood were destroyed. "If they besiege us, we will hit them with more rockets," he declares with a manly defiance, but a child's sadness to see his small world reduced to piles of rubble.

Every child I meet in Gaza and southern Israel finds a different way to cope with memories of a summer they struggle to forget.

But every child said, ever so matter-of-factly, that another war was coming. And every child still hoped that, somehow, it wouldn't.

"Is it right that children around the world live and play in comfort and safety while we live with death and destruction?" pleads Abdulrahman.

Children of the Gaza War is on BBC Two on Wednesday 8 July at 21:00 BST. It is on BBC World News on 11 July at 09:10 and 21:10 GMT and on 12 July at 02:10 and 15:10 GMT. You can catch up later via BBC iPlayer.

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