'Reconstruction' in Gaza a distant dream
KHUZA'A, Gaza: Two-and-a-half months have passed since this summer's war with Israel ended, yet rebuilding has yet to start in Gaza, and there is no real sign of reconstruction starting up.
Ibtissam al-Najjar, 40, and her family are among the many people who have returned to stay in their destroyed homes in Khuza'a, east of Khan Younis, which was particularly hard-hit during the war.
"Our home used to have a ground floor and a basement. Only a part of the basement is left. That's where we are living - me, my two daughters, and four sons. My husband was killed in the 2008 war. He was shot on the rooftop of our house," said Najjar.
"Big blocks of concrete are falling down in the basement. It is not safe to stay here, but we don't have a choice." Some don't want to stay in the caravans installed by international NGO, Humanitarian Appeal International, as there is no privacy there.
During Israel's 50-day offensive against the Gaza Strip, 17,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, adding to the 5,000 homes still needing repairs after damage sustained in previous military offensives.
Wherever you go in the Gaza Strip, you find residents scrabbling around on top of ruined buildings, removing rubble with shovels or bare hands to recover what they can from what was once their home.
With peace talks stalled, and no end in sight to the Israeli siege in place since 2007, most of the 100,000 people who have been made homeless in this summer's offensive feel they have little to no information about the reconstruction process.
"Many people came to ask questions and do assessments, but we haven't seen any action yet," is a much-voiced frustration among those who have seen their homes destroyed.
Many residents now say that they have little hope that their homes will ever be rebuilt. Shelter Cluster, run by a number of international NGOs, UN agencies, and national NGOs coordinating their work together in the Gaza Strip, has estimated that, with the present level of import restrictions, reconstruction will take 20 years.
With winter approaching and temperatures dropping, frustration and anger are growing.
At present, 30,000 people are staying in 13 UN Relief and Works Agency school buildings that are serving as collective shelters. Others who lost their homes during the war are staying in rented accommodation or with relatives, or have moved back in amidst the rubble.
Dozens of metal caravans (similar to small shipping containers and fitted out with the basic amenities for living) have also been set up by an NGO, Human Appeal International (HAI), in Khuza'a to provide shelter for those who have lost their homes in the area. While HAI says it is doing all that it can to create decent living conditions, the blockade is making even something this basic extremely difficult because of a ban on bringing into Gaza the materials needed for making the caravans.
Ibrahim al-Najjar (Al-Najjar being a common surname in the area) and his 12 relatives are staying in one of the caravans. While it provides a shelter, it is barely adequate and at times dangerous.
"Water and sewage leak into the caravan when it rains. The walls and floor have become unstable because of flooding. The big closet in the bedroom fell on top of my two sons as the floor sunk. They injured their backs," said the father of nine, who is in his mid-40s.
"We have been without drinking water for three days now. We have called everyone, but they don't come. Our children are dirty from playing outside, but we can't give them a bath. We are trying to bring bottles of water from other villages, but water is scarce."
Ibrahim has begun action as a sort of community leader, chasing up aid agencies and authorities to try and do more. Even so, he says, "we have lost everything, and can't even pay for baby milk, pampers, or medicines. I think it is better to die than to have to live like this."
In terms of reconstruction, his hopes are no higher. "It will take many years. We have seen that people whose houses were destroyed in the 2008 war still don't have a new home. This will take a long time."
A young mother, 29-year-old Tahreer al-Najjar, is also staying in one of the caravans, with her new-born daughter, Sundos, and three other women. She too has lost her home.
"A Qatari charity built a home for me and my family. It was completed last year during Ramadan. We lived there for one year and now it is destroyed already," she said.
Now Tahreer, who is blind, and her baby are struggling to survive in the sub-standard conditions.
"Water leaks into the caravan when it rains, and it gets very cold at night. We try to warm up our children by holding them close to our bodies. I need to go to a new home. If it was just for me, I would not beg for help. No one wants to beg but she [her baby] only weighs one-and-a-half kilograms."
Tahreer says women in neighbouring caravans try to look after her as best they can. "People know my situation so sometimes people come to bring me some chicken," she said.
While the young mother hopes that she will eventually find a new home, she thinks it will take three to four years. By then, her daughter will be walking and talking and will be all too aware of the hardships facing the family. The rest of Tahreer's extended family are little better off.
Her brother, Fadi, was preparing to establish his own family when the Israeli attack on Gaza wrecked his plans and more.
"We were shocked when we came back after the war. We did not expect our houses and the houses of our neighbours to be destroyed like this. Only one room of the family house remains - the living room. The bedrooms, kitchen, and bathroom are gone. They've also destroyed our family's chicken farm and sheepfold, killing all the animals."
Fadi's wedding was to take place in August, after the end of Ramadan, but with no home to go back to, the event is now a distant possibility.
"Everything was ready for our marriage. We had finished our new house. My fiancé had bought many things for our new life together and put them inside our house. Now everything is gone - the house, our belongings, and even the dowry," he said.
"I sold my phone so I could buy some clothing for my fiancé and myself."
During the offensive, the father of Fadi and Tahreer, Adnan al-Najjar, sustained shrapnel injuries allegedly after F16s fired missiles around him as he was fleeing from the family home waving a white flag. He has since been given a caravan to live in by aid agencies, but he insists that the young couple-to-be use it instead as their first home.
"It will be difficult to live in the caravan, but we don't have any choice," Fadi said.
"Our situation is just like that of everyone else. We don't have options. The joy of getting married has been taken away."
The sense of resignation is felt by young and old alike.
Raida Abu Mghasib, her husband and five sons are all staying at an UNRWA school serving as a collective shelter in Deir al-Balah. For the past few months, she has lived in a room without windows under the school stairwell, together with her sons and several other women and their children.
"We sleep here, all 13 of us lined up next to each other. We have to keep the door open to get some air. We lock the door to the stairwell, so no strangers can enter into our room, but my children are unhealthy, and things are not good for them at school," Abu Mghasib told MEE.
The difficult living conditions create a host of knock-on complications, impacting everything from people's health to their education.
"My son Mohammed disappeared for two days. Finally, we found him in the mosque. He said he had run away because the teacher had beaten him for not doing his homework," Abu Mghasib said. "But how can he do his homework in this environment? The aid organisations always say 'tomorrow, tomorrow'.
"The way things are going, I don't have any hope that we will get help. Organisations ask us many questions, but we don't get the help we need and we have nothing to go back to," she said.