Gaza: A home among the ruins

Follow three Gazan families as they try to rebuild their lives among the rubble after last year's war.


    By the time Israel's 'Operation Protective Edge' drew to a close last summer, approximately 2,251 Palestinians were dead.

    But the human toll of the conflict was not only calculated in the hospital wards and morgues. Around 18,000 houses had been destroyed, leaving, according to UN calculations, more than 108,000 Gazans homeless.

    Some of these took shelter in UNRWA schools; others returned to the ruins of their former homes to live among what remained.

    Approximately $5.4bn of international aid was pledged to rebuild, but for most Gazans reconstruction remains a distant and elusive dream.

    We followed three families as they attempted to rebuild their lives among the rubble: the Abu Ouda family in the ruins of their former home in Beit Hanoun; the Alsabagh family in a UNRWA school in the Al Shati camp; and the Al-Anjar family in a donated container in Khuza'a.  

    The Abu Ouda Family: 'Our lives collapsed under Israeli bombardment'



    Abdel Abu Ouda, Shady's brother, and his son rest in the living room of their house in Beit Hanoun [Virginie Nguyen Hoang/Hanslucas/Collectif Huma] 

    Rubble lines the streets of Beit Hanoun, a town in northern Gaza that is located just 6km from the Israeli town of Sderot. Among the rubble is what remains of the home of Shady Abu Ouda: a roofless room where laundry hangs between two barely standing walls and some chairs have been placed in the centre.

    Shady is a married father of six. His youngest child, Mohammed, is just six months old.

    We no longer have walls to protect us from the cold and rain

    Shady Abu Ouda, Beit Hanoun

    "We live in this house with six of my brothers," he explains. "Four of them have families. It is a family house that my father built in order to get us all together."

    "Within a few days, our life collapsed under Israeli bombardment," he adds.

    When the shelling of his neighbourhood began, Shady and his family took refuge in a UNRWA school. During the first ceasefire, he returned home to find his house half destroyed.

    "We had an area of 200m² before the war," Shady explains. "We are now in a room of 20m², which before was reserved for the chickens." 

    "But despite the cold and the lack of space, we prefer to come here rather than to stay in the UN school. Over there, the conditions are worse: it's too crowded, it's dirty and there isn't any privacy."

    Shady's wife kneels on the floor as she makes flat bread in a small oven. Her six-month-old son sleeps behind her.In the remains of another room, the other children do their homework.Two of the children attend morning sessions at the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun; two others go in the afternoon.

    "My [13-year-old] daughter Nour has lived through three wars in the last six years," says Shady."Since this summer, she has had nightmares at night like many other children in Gaza."

    "Our children have to go through other consequences of war," he adds. "There is a drinking water quota of 1,500 litres per week for a street of 60 inhabitants; it's not enough. Electricity is limited to six hours a day and the oil is too expensive to run generators. Fortunately, we have enough to eat thanks to humanitarian distribution, but we fear the winter as we no longer have walls to protect us from the cold and rain."

    "Hamas has given us $2,000 because we lost our house, but this money is not enough to rebuild."

    "I'm a construction worker but there is no work because the material doesn't arrive. We heard the promises at the conference in Cairo but as long as we don't see that money in our hands, we don't believe in it."

    Without any work, Shady follows the same daily routine as so many others.

    "We sleep, we eat, we drink tea and we sleep again," he says. "At every hour of the day, you'll find us here. This situation is hopeless." 

    Shady's oldest child, Nour, is 13 years old. She has witnessed three wars during her lifetime, but her father says last summer's conflict was the worst she has experienced. She still wakes up screaming at night [Virginie Nguyen Hoang/Hanslucas/Collectif Huma] 

     The Alsabagh Family: 'The children have nightmares and wake up screaming'



    Shadia's children play with others in the courtyard of the school where they have been staying since their apartment was destroyed [Virginie Nguyen Hoang/Hanslucas/Collectif Huma] 

    In the Al Shati camp, which is also known as the Beach Camp because of its proximity to the coast, a UNRWA school still serves as a shelter for around 1,580 people.

    In the courtyard, three young men sit around a campfire deep in debate while children play football nearby.

    The school's mosque has been home to Shadia, her husband Shady, her stepmother and her three children - 11-year-old Dalia, nine-year-old Ihab and seven-year-old Mohammed - for three months.

    I have only one desire: to cry

    Shadia Alsabagh, Al Shati camp

    Inside, chairs are piled up and two mattresses lay on the floor.

    "We are not happy here," says Shadia. "We have seven bathrooms for more than 1,500 people. They are dirty, not to mention the smell. More than that, the water for showers isn't filtered properly; it's very salty and children have begun to get skin diseases."

    "We receive food every day during the distribution to UN schools but for three months it has always been the same tins."

    "We have no privacy. I have to wear my veil throughout the day and my kids ask me every day when we will return home. I have only one desire: to cry."

    The family had previously lived in an apartment in Beit Laya, but they fled the bombing and took shelter in a UNRWA school. When Shady returned home during one of the ceasefires, there was nothing left of the building in which they had lived.

    "When the truce was announced my husband and I decided to leave the school and set up a tent near the Al Nada towers. But three days later, Hamas men came to destroy it on the pretext that we could not settle on government land without paying. They threatened to put my husband in jail if we did not leave immediately. Our house was destroyed and we were still ejected? What can we do?" Shadia asks.

    Shady cannot find work so the family has no choice but to sell the cans of food distributed by the UN. The few possessions they have come from friends and donations from various NGOs.

    Shadia does not know when they will be able to leave the school. "Every month, several families are chosen to leave and receive $2,000 to rent an apartment," she says. "We don't know when it's our turn and even with $2,000, how long will that last if my husband is not working?"

    "He's not the same since the war. During the bombing, he was involved in transporting the wounded to the hospital as well as dead bodies. He saw horrible things," Shadia adds

    "Now he's frustrated at not being able to give the children what they want as they get bored here. And they have nightmares and wake up screaming. We don't know what to do."

    A social worker and child psychologist spends some time with children at the school where they are living [Virginie Nguyen Hoang/Hanslucas/Collectif Huma] [Daylife]

    The Al-Anjar Family: 'The smell was horrible because the bodies were left in the sun for days'


    Sabrina walks through the ruins of her house. During the bombing, she hid in a shelter with her aunt. When she left the shelter during the first ceasefire, she discovered the lifeless body of her brother [Virginie Nguyen Hoang/Hanslucas/Collectif Huma] 

    Further south, near the Egyptian border, lies the village of Khuza'a. Human Rights Watch has claimed that war crimes were committed here when the Israeli army stopped residents from escaping the bombing and used some as human shields. Twenty-three-year-old Sabrina Al-Anjar survived the ground invasion.

    Now people here call me the one who lives with the martyrs

    Sabrina Al-Anjar, Khuza'a

    "We took refuge in Khan Younes School when the Israeli army distributed leaflets stating that it was a military area with orders to evacuate," she explains.

    "But my older brother and I wanted to stay here. When the bombing started, my brother took me to my aunt [who had] an underground shelter. He went to take refuge elsewhere with friends. During the first ceasefire in Khuza'a, I searched and I found his lifeless body."

    "For two days, the Israeli soldiers prevented anyone from passing, including ambulances. When we got out of the shelter, the smell was horrible because the bodies were left in the sun for days. On the way, I saw young men being shot when they just wanted to flee Khuza'a. Now people here call me 'the one who lives with the martyrs'."

    Sabrina's mother, Feda Hamdan Al-Anjar, did not want to stay in a UNRWA school, so when the truce was announced, she returned to the spot where her home had been and pitched a tent.

    "I could not stay in the school; it was unsanitary," she explains. "When I returned home, I had lost everything: my clothes, my furniture, my washing machine and even my goats and sheep that helped me to earn money."

    In September, the NGO Human Appeal UK donated 100 containers to people who had lost their homes. Each one is equipped with a small bathroom, two bedrooms and a small kitchen. Fifty were distributed in Khuza'a, and Feda was one of the recipients.

    As she drains the water from her morning shower, Feda feels lucky. Just a few yards away, one man's container has been flooded. The water comes from the road but also from the sewage outlet for his toilet.

    "When the containers were installed, we noticed that the place was lower than the road," Feda explains. "It was evident that, with the first rains, we will be flooded. We asked for UN sandbags but we still haven't received anything so I asked my sons to bring some."

    The container is just big enough for Feda and her three daughters. One of her sons lives in a tent among the rubble of their old house; another rents an apartment in Khan Younis.

    When it rains, the donated container homes flood [Virginie Nguyen Hoang/Hanslucas/Collectif Huma] 

    This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download the magazine for iPads and iPhones here, and for Android devices here.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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