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12 February 2008
LEBANON: Ray of hope for Beirut squat on edge of Shatila refugee camp
BEIRUT, 12 February 2008 (IRIN) - Mirna Abu Nader woke up just in time.
“We had noticed that the iron girders had started to bend from the huge pressure on the roof,” said the 24-year-old mother of two toddlers. “I was sleeping when I heard a creak and then a huge slab of concrete fell into our room. I only just managed to grab the baby in time.”
Welcome to life in the Gaza Buildings: the slum inside a slum; a former Palestinian hospital just outside the Shatila refugee camp south of Beirut turned squat for the poor and destitute.
Built in the 1970s by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Gaza Buildings were intended to better lives. The complex of four tower blocks arranged around a central courtyard originally housed a hospital run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS)
, a nursery, an office and a military hospital.
The building was partially destroyed by the Israeli armed forces in their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and when the “camp war” of the late 1980s broke out between Lebanese militias and Palestinian militants in neighbouring Sabra and Shatila, the ruined Gaza Buildings became the last refuge for those who lost homes and families to the violence.
Today, according to research by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the four buildings are home to over 900 people, mostly Palestinians but also Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians, many of them elderly, many of them single.
Two out of three children have dropped out of school; one out of three suffer chronic illness and, according to a 2003 research paper by Glasgow University, the conditions in the Gaza Buildings “resemble the slum housing of the United Kingdom in the last century”.
Residents live in legal limbo, in an unofficial building not covered by the UN Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA, without running water or regular electricity, many in single rooms with no windows, no sinks and no kitchens.
In one of the tower blocks, the lift shaft is full of rubbish, in another the basement is full of raw sewage and in another, elderly, widowed women defecate into plastic buckets for lack of toilet facilities.
“I am a clean woman and I just want to live a couple of clean days before I die,” said 65-year-old Fawzie Ali Serhan, pointing to the chair with a hole in its cover that serves as a toilet in her cluttered, cramped room. “I’m not living in the wild. I just want a water tank and a small kitchen with a sink.”
Improvements to begin on 19 February
Soon, thanks to an NRC initiative supported by the European Community Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), Fawzie Ali Serhan will get her kitchen sink.
Working to a budget of US$1.4m split roughly between ECHO and the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry, NRC has contracted local builders to completely re-wire and re-plumb the four buildings, ensuring basic sanitation and living conditions are met. Rooms will be plastered and leaking roofs tiled. Work is due to begin on 19 February.
Richard Evans, Shelter Manager for NRC Lebanon, believes his agency can succeed where others have tried and failed to improve living conditions in the Gaza Buildings.
“We’ve had no restriction on access and our steering committee includes the local municipalities and officials from the PRCS,” he said. “We have a good relationship with the building committees for each of the Gaza Buildings and we are working on the social aspect to ensure the project remains sustainable.”
For Mirna Abu Nader, builders might be able to repair her roof and stop falling slabs of concrete nearly crushing her toddlers, but the Gaza Buildings will never be the place she wants to raise her children.
“No one respects anyone in here,” she said. “I would just love to move to a better place where the neighbours would show some respect and I could bring up my children in a better way.”