On the morning of Oct. 15, Noor Rihan’s house in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, was bombed by Israeli forces. Half of her family was killed, and a massive chunk of concrete landed on her back. Having spent three years trying to conceive, Rihan was eight months pregnant.
She was moved, bleeding, to the biggest hospital in Gaza, Al-Shifa. The medics there were overwhelmed by the number of dead and wounded pouring in as Israel retaliated for the brutal Oct. 7 attack launched by Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Amid the relentless bombardment, Rihan was rushed into an operating room and her baby was saved. The boy was put on a ventilator as his lungs had not fully developed.
“After the surgery, they took my son right away. I didn’t see him at all,” Rihan told CBS News. “I didn’t see his features or know what he looks like.”
She remained in the hospital for three days. She said there was no food or medicine, and dead bodies were piling up in the hallways.
“I had to leave. I didn’t know anything about my family. My house was destroyed, I didn’t know who was still under the rubble,” she said. “I didn’t even know if my husband was alive or dead or where they had buried the dead.”
With no money, and in pain from inflamed stitches after her surgery, she walked for an hour and half to reach a school in the Jabalia refugee camp run by the United Nations’ aid agency UNRWA. She found her husband there, wounded but alive.
About a week later, she said the school was hit by three missiles, so she decided to leave again — but first, she wanted to see her son.
She went back to Al-Shifa hospital, but they told her if she took her baby, he would die in her arms outside the hospital. Rihan made the painful decision to leave her newborn son. She went to another nearby school seeking shelter, hoping she could visit her tiny boy often.
For three days, Rihan said Israeli army troops surrounded the school.
“Other women were giving birth inside the school, without a doctor. We Gazans were stitching each other’s wounds.”
She said the soldiers shouted orders through megaphones for everyone in the school to leave, two by two, carrying nothing but their IDs.
“I was holding my 5-year-old brother’s hand. He was wounded and kept telling me, ‘I can’t walk, Noor. We are walking on glass.’ I asked if I could carry him; they [Israeli forces] said, ‘No, leave him.'”
“In Gaza, our children, instead of walking around carrying their toys, they are walking around holding their dead siblings,” Rihan told CBS News. “This is what Gaza is like.” After leaving the school, Rihan went back to Al-Shifa again, hoping to stay with her son. She said a doctor told her that only God could help now. He offered his condolences in advance, explaining that her child was being kept alive by machines running on a rapidly dwindling fuel supply. Israeli forces were expected to besiege the hospital, underneath which they said Hamas was operating a command center.
“I asked him to give me my son before the siege. He said, ‘If you take him, it’s the same thing, he will die on the way because of his immature lungs, and the machines aren’t operating at full capacity due to the lack of fuel.'”
“I had to leave and move to the south, leaving my heart behind with my son,” she said.
As per Israel’s orders, Rihan joined the exodus of Palestinian civilians heading to the south of Gaza. At the Al-Nuseirat refugee camp, she learned that Al-Shifa hospital was under siege. Israel said it had launched a “precise and targeted” ground operation inside the hospital.
“I considered my son dead,” she said. “My son was on a ventilator, and they cut off the electricity and destroyed the generators. I lost hope that my son was alive.”
But Rihan’s baby, along with dozens of other fragile newborns clinging to life inside Al-Shifa hospital, would soon gain the world’s attention as photos of them wrapped in aluminum foil to keep warm spread across the globe.
Rihan saw the photos, but she didn’t know which of the babies, if any, was her son. She frantically contacted aid organizations and anyone else she could to find out if he was even still alive, but for 15 days, Rihan was unable to learn anything about the fate of her child.
“Imagine, a mother just trying to learn the news of whether her son is alive or dead. Knowing that even if he was alive, he was still going to die,” she told CBS News. “But there was this hope, this one-percent hope.”
Then she learned that on Nov. 19, in an operation carried out by the Red Crescent with help from the U.N., dozens of babies were moved from Al-Shifa to the Emirati Hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza.
Clinging to the glimmer of hope, Rihan and her husband went to the Emirati Hospital and finally learned that their son was still alive. But she still wasn’t able to meet him. “The doctor told me, ‘Listen, you are not feeling well. Some of your family were killed, you lost your house, you are going through a lot and you already have postpartum depression. How will you handle it?'”
Later, she was shown pictures, and said her little boy “was in terrible condition” and didn’t even “look like a human.”
“He was so weak that you could see all his ribs,” she said. “I couldn’t hold him. He was smaller than the palm of my hand.” Then, in another humanitarian operation, 28 babies were moved from Rafah across the Gaza border to the city of Al-Arish, in Egypt. Rihan’s tiny boy was among them. Twenty-three of the vulnerable infants were then transferred to a brand new hospital in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, outside Cairo, and the majority of them have since recovered.
On Dec. 5, Rihan finally got the required permits to leave Gaza and join her son in Egypt.
She told CBS News the first time she saw her little boy was in Al-Arish, 50 days after he was born. After a nightmarish start in life, there’s hope for Rihan and her baby boy, Ayman, whom she can now hold in her arms.
“It was like a dream to meet my son,” she told CBS News, but she added that her joy is still only partial: “I wish my husband could be here to see his son. My husband hasn’t seen his son for two months, not even a photo, there is no communication in the north [of Gaza].”
Like the handful of other mothers who were able to come to Egypt to join their babies, they’re eager for their whole families, including their husbands, to be reunited.
And while they’ve escaped the hellscape of Gaza, the tiny babies rescued from the war zone still face an uncertain future. Most are now ready to be discharged, to go “home,” but few have homes to return to and, in some cases, no families, either.