The children living in Gaza’s rubble
By Catherine Weibel and Sajy Elmughanni
A young girl and her family remain in their home, a year after it was destroyed in conflict, as reconstruction has barely begun in Gaza, and rebuilding shattered lives will likely take far longer.
GAZA, State of Palestine, 8 July 2015 – For 12-year-old Malak, last year’s 51 days of hostilities are not something she can forget.
“My friends used to visit me at home before the war, but now no one comes here anymore. Even our relatives don’t – they are afraid our house will collapse on them,” she says.
Malak and 59 other children from the same extended family are still living in a blown-out building in Beit Hanoun, one of the areas in Gaza most heavily damaged in last year’s conflict, which left 551 children dead and 3,370 injured.
The four-story building is home to 10 brothers and their families. Even though it was destroyed by an air strike, the family has stayed because they have nowhere else to go. They live amid the rubble of what was once a beautiful building, as shown on a banner hanging over what used to be the main door.Aside from minor repairs and rehabilitation, the reconstruction of more than 12,600 housing units totally destroyed in Gaza has yet to start, prolonging the hardship of some 100,000 people, half of whom are children.
Of the total amount of construction materials required to rebuild Gaza, less than 2 per cent has entered the territory so far.
“The doors are gone, the windows are gone and so are the walls. I have slept on a mattress with my two sisters ever since my bedroom collapsed,” Malak says. “There are no walls – anyone can see me while I sleep. I have no privacy. It’s as if we’re living on the street.”
Malak has now lived through three conflicts in her short life. She still has nightmares every night.
Some of her cousins have problems such as difficulty paying attention, feelings of hopelessness and the looming fear of another conflict. Symptoms of psychosocial distress still affect more than 300,000 children across Gaza, a year on from a conflict that left 551 children dead and 3,370 injured, with many struggling with life-long disabilities.
Last year, the holy month of Ramadan took place during the peak of hostilities; this year it is more peaceful, but families are struggling to get by with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, at 43 per cent, and food insecurity at 73 per cent in a coastal enclave that has been under blockade for eight years.
On the ground floor of the building, Malak’s 9-year-old cousin Omar is busy grilling a few tomatoes on a fire, to serve as lunch for the children who are too young to fast.
Like all children his age in Gaza, Omar has only known life under the blockade. His family has limited access to basic services such as electricity, safe drinking water and domestic gas for cooking.
Around him, dozens of babies, toddlers and small children crawl and scramble through what’s left of the ground floor of the building. On the street, older children play behind the wheel of a few cars and a bulldozer destroyed by the blast.
“We don’t know where to play, so we stay home. My dad’s car was bombed and so was my grandfather’s, so we play there too,” a cheerful Omar says.
After a few minutes, the child is not so sure it is a good thing.
“I know it’s not good to be here; I wish I could live like the other children in the world,” he says.
A brighter future
Malak prefers to read in one of the few rooms that still have a ceiling, next to a framed photo of a teenager – Malak’s aunt, killed by bullet at their home during a previous round of military hostilities in 2009. The frame hangs over the hole where the bullet is still lodged; the family says it was fired by the Israeli army.
An avid reader, Malak says her grades are not as good as they used to be, but she is dedicated to her studies, hoping for a brighter future.
“I want to become an engineer like my dad, so I can rebuild people’s homes – our house, our neighbours’ and our friends’,” she tells. “I want to help people so they can be safe.”
UNICEF is leading humanitarian interventions to help children like Malak and Omar recover from the conflict – caring for their well-being through psychosocial support, repairing water services, providing new water infrastructure, rehabilitating damaged schools, and providing remedial education to help the many students who have fallen behind.
Within the last month, a new stage of reconstruction has begun, which should allow for the 12,600 totally destroyed homes to be rebuilt and new housing to be built.
One year on, it is vital that the world does not give up on Gaza’s children, and helps repair the damage caused to their lives, in order to support them in achieving their dreams of a brighter, more peaceful future.
Updated: 8 July 2015