Shujayea, Gaza – On a quiet side street in Shujayea, shadowed by the twisted wreckage of bombed-out buildings that were once their homes and livelihoods, people sit in the afternoon sunshine. They sit, and they remember.
“This was once one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods in Shujayea,” Walid al-Zaza tells Al Jazeera. “We had houses, businesses, lives.”
Today, displaced concrete slabs sag precariously above heaps of rubble inside the apartment complex that Zaza’s friends once called home. Up and down the street, as far as one’s gaze can sweep, devastation reigns.
Zaza turns his attention to a young toddler in a purple fleece sweater, who looks out from the backseat of a truck parked nearby, and his face darkens.
“Now this little baby knows what a drone strike is,” he says, “what war is.”
One day we just woke up and found ourselves living between the rubble.
Israel’s 51-day war on the Gaza Strip last summer killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, displaced more than half a million others and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes, according to UN data. Among the hardest hit areas was the densely populated district of Shujayea, where heavy tank and artillery shelling killed 72 people and injured more than 200 others in a single day in late July. The massacre sparked international condemnation.
More than five months later, little has been rebuilt. Shujayea still looks like a war zone. Apartment complexes stand without walls, while shops, homes and factories lie in broken heaps along the roadside.
Akram al-Hellou, 45, points to one of these heaps. It used to be his house; now, he sits with a friend in the shade of a nearby apartment skeleton, surrounded by young children.
“We had green land behind the house,” he tells Al Jazeera. “I used to sit with my kids in the sun, and with my mother.”
Hellou’s mother died in the war. She was inside the house when it got bombed. His brother died in a separate attack when the Israelis bombed a nearby playground.
Hellou squints against the midday glare, eating sunflower seeds one by one and spitting out the shells. He is not optimistic about Shujayea’s future.
“As long as President Mahmoud Abbas is still ruling, there will never be reconstruction. If he hates Hamas [the faction governing Gaza], it’s his own business. This is not our fault,” Hellou says. “We just want our houses to be rebuilt.”
Sitting beside Hellou, Issam Eleiwa nods his head in agreement. “These kids know nothing about politicians or what Hamas is,” Eleiwa tells Al Jazeera. “He’s just a kid who wants a shelter.”
Every morning, Eleiwa says, residents living on this street gather to remember what the neighbourhood used to look like. “This is a very dear area,” he says. “It’s where we were born. It’s our home… It was all trees, it used to look fancy.
“One day we just woke up and found ourselves living between the rubble.”
As he speaks, 10-year-old Mayar Habib chases her friends around in the empty floor of a bombed-out apartment building. This is where all the children play now; among shards of metal and glass, broken bricks and demolished furniture. Colourful blankets have been draped strategically to conceal missing walls.
Of all the things she lost, Mayar misses her Ramadan clothing the most. She had laid out a special outfit to mark the end of the religious holiday, and it was destroyed in the war, she explains.
Around another corner, a little boy quietly shovels rubble from one pile into another in front of a demolished home.
Harara Street in Shujayea suffered some the heaviest damage during the Israeli bombing campaign. Today, the street bustles with young men scouring the rubble for anything salvageable. A cart rattles by, brimming with strips of white scrap metal.
“I have nothing else to do,” 19-year-old Ali Hweh tells Al Jazeera, clad in a brown fishing hat and torn sweatpants, as he uses heavy machinery to straighten out a pile of bent metal rods, one by one. He is working for a local engineer who wants to reuse the metal, he explains. “I hope this can help in the rebuilding.”
Across the street, Baker el-Batneji sips coffee outside his fallen home, holding a bit of salvaged plastic in one hand. Visible amongst the wreckage of his house are fragments of wooden furniture and colourful scraps of clothing. As Batneji has sifted through the rubble in the months after the war, he says, he has come across more and more shattered remnants of his old life.
“I used to live here in a very beautiful house, two floors, three apartments, 14 family members… There were olive trees and tomatoes and cucumbers,” he tells Al Jazeera. “The war came suddenly. There were shootings and bombings. [We fled] and when we came back, all was destroyed.”
Batneji farmed this land before. Now, like many residents of Shujayea, there is no work for him, “so we come and sit around by the destroyed houses, and we have coffee and tea”.
Nearby, a small boy passes his hand through his hair again and again; he asks each passerby to bring him a toy.
We heard a lot of donations were coming to Gaza, but we didn't actually see anything in reality.
Nidal Hellis runs a small convenience store in Shujayea. The shelves are lined with boxes of chips and biscuits, while folded umbrellas and bags of bright plastic soccer balls dangle from the ceiling. The refrigerator is filled with cans of soda, but they are not being kept cold; the glass door was blown out by bombs.
Business has dropped dramatically since the war, Hellis tells Al Jazeera. Many customers who lost their homes are now living in shelters outside of Shujayea, and those who remain have less money to spend.
But “it’s my only income”, Hellis says. “I have to go on.”
Further down the dusty street, Salwa Abu Elata pauses outside a partially destroyed factory. She remembers her own home, before the kitchen was pulverized by bombs. When her son got married, the whole family gathered outside the house; it is her strongest memory of life before the war.
“We got no help to rebuild, not even a bag of cement,” Abu Elata tells Al Jazeera.
In many cases, when people left Shujayea after the war, they put signs on the bombed-out remains of their homes stating who lived there, along with a telephone number to call for anyone wishing to help. But little help has come, Zaza says.
“We heard a lot of donations were coming to Gaza, but we didn’t actually see anything in reality,” he says, noting his family has only received donations of old clothes from a local charity.
“This is not what we need,” he says. “We need a place to live.”
All around him, people sit in the slumping remains of Shujayea. As afternoon moves towards evening, they sit, and they remember.
There’s not much more they can do.
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