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Homeless Gazans dig for memories

Disappointment for desolate children in Shejayeh, east Gaza City, hunting for abandoned toys as the UN starts clearing the rubble after the war
Children struggle to find toys, clothes as UN begins to clean up the rubble after this summer's war (MEE / Mohammed Asad)

GAZA CITY - Four-year-old Retaj Ayyad presses her 30-year-old father, Ayman Ayyad, to keep looking under the ruins of their home in search of her drawings, clothes, colouring pencils and teddy bears. All are irreplaceable but are now lost under the ruins of the family home, which was utterly demolished by Israeli military bulldozers during the war this past summer.

This is the first time since the conflict ended this August that the family has returned to their ruined home in Shejayeh, east of Gaza City.

They have to search by hand, having no heavy equipment with which to lift the rubble that remains after a bulldozer - part of a project under a Swedish-funded United Nations Development Program – helped to cleared the ruins of this and other demolished homes in Shejayeh, east of Gaza City.

Ayman eventually finds a bag of clothes, but the material has rotted after rainfall over the past few weeks. The discovery creates mixed feelings, and he wavers, unsure of what else he might come across as he digs. 

“I am still looking for my belongings, clothes and furniture. For many months we have been given nothing like that from aid groups,” he said, raising his voice to make sure he is heard above the noise of the bulldozer, which continued to smash into rubble nearby.

“I am looking for everything I once owned. Thirty years of collecting things, the remnants of everything I once owned, have been knocked down in a matter of minutes," he said.

But now he has been forced to search for the simple things which can help him start his life again. He explained that the way he sees it, the international community has abandoned Gazans to cope with post-war reconstruction themselves and have offered no support.     

According to the UN, the 51-day Israeli bombardment, destroyed more than 96,000 homes, leaving 100,000 people homeless.

In October, around 50 countries pledged a total of $5.4 bn in aid to reconstruct Gaza. The European Union member states said they would contribute $570 m to Gaza, while Qatar’s foreign minister Khalid al-Attiyah pledged $1 bn.

Yet the money has been slow to arrive, and even the cash that has come in, has largely not been able to get to Gaza, which remains under an Israeli blockade. It’s main route of entry, the Rafah crossing with Egypt, has also overwhelming remained closed, with only a small trickling of aid being allowed through.

Israel is concerned that building supplies will fall into the hands of Hamas, but international charity Shelter Cluster, co-chaired by the UN refugee agency and the Red Cross, said that at the current rate of aid delivery, it would take 20 years to rebuild Gaza.

“It hurts me to see all my assets in pieces. Nothing is left. It makes me wonder where are we heading and if, or when, we will ever see our homes built again?” Ayyad asked.

His children, two boys and two girls, have all been traumatized by recent events - a shock that is only further aggravated by them having to dig through the remnants of their own homes to find their precious belongings.

Retaj reminds her father that before the house was demolished, her mother had bought her new clothes for Eid. "I still want to wear them, daddy," the little girl begged.

Ayyad tried to make her understand that those new clothes had gone, buried beneath the ruins, but when he tried to explain why Israel had destroyed their home she couldn’t understand. She kept on asking the same question “but why?” but Ayyad could not find the words to explain something so difficult to the four-year-old/

Next to the Ayyad family in Shejayeh, stood11-year-old Salem Saed, who had also returned to the area to try and dig among the ruins of what used to be his home, or what he believes was his home before last summer. It all looks so different now that he's not quite sure he's really back.

The whole block of houses was crushed completely, and none of the residents are sure of just where their former homes now lie amidst the vast mess around them.

But everyone in a while, every once in a while a former resident strikes it lucky and occasional victorious shout can be heard ringing through to say that someone has found their old refrigerator a few hundred meters away, or has managed to pull out a toy, a photo album or a lonely piece of cooking equipment.

“I would love to find my bicycle or plastic car,” said Salem as he continued to dig amid the ruins.

Salem says he had to run with his parents and brothers into a shelter on the morning Israeli tank shells began falling around them. “We ran into Saladin school and had to leave everything behind,” he says.

When Salem returned, together with his 11 siblings, there was nothing to find except the burnt-out ruins of what used to be their streets, gardens and neighbours' homes. 

After hours of digging with his 12-year-old cousin Ibrahim, however, the pair have found little. Only some old sweets that stood hidden beneath the rubble of what used to be a supermarket where they also unearth some melted chocolate, sticky candy and old jam.

Another cousin, Mahdi Salem, was also busy searching for his bike nearby, saying that he had grown tired of going to school without his bicycle, especially in this cold.

"God willing, I will find my bicycle. Part of me is happy to see the rubble of our old homes removed, but the other part of me is scared, because I remember the war that took it all away," he said.