Flooded and freezing in Gaza

Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza has been badly flooded over the past few months (Ashraf Amra - APA images)

Sarah Algherbawi

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 1, 2022

The day I was born was probably the hottest day of 1991 – at least that is what my mother tells me.

Yet despite being a summer baby, I am happiest when it is cold and wet.

When I was a child, I gave myself a few nicknames. One of them was Winter Butterfly.

I often drew butterflies and wrote that nickname inside them on my textbooks and notebooks at school.

When I went to college, I deliberately waited until it started raining before walking home on many days.

The distance between college and home was approximately 3 kilometers. As I undertook that walk, I would feel energized by the rain.

It seemed to relieve whatever stress I was going through.

The love of rain has stayed with me. I especially enjoy visiting my in-laws at wintertime.

My in-laws belong to a family forced out of al-Majdal just north of Gaza during the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. They now live in the middle of Jabaliya refugee camp.

It is hugely satisfying to drink a hot cup of tea and listen to raindrops falling on a tin roof in Jabaliya camp. I would go so far as to say it is good for the soul.

This winter has been different. We – my husband, children and I – did not visit Jabaliya camp even once.

My in-laws’ home was damaged during Israel’s May 2021 attack on Gaza.

An explosion nearby left cracks in its roof and walls. A lot of rainwater has leaked through the roof since then.

My in-laws are fortunate compared to others in the camp. They live on higher ground than many of their neighbors.

That seems to have protected my in-laws’ home from being flooded.

Emergency

The Salem family, who live on the southern edge of Jabaliya camp, have not had any such escape.

At one stage during the winter, they were awakened at 3 am. They quickly realized that their home had been flooded with a mixture of rainwater and sewage.

The water – more than a meter deep – caused immense destruction in their home, where a total of 12 people live.

Waseem, the youngest member of the family, is only a few months old. He became ill as the home got colder.

“I couldn’t find anything to keep the baby warm,” said Atef Salem, Waseem’s father. “All of our clothes were underwater. The only thing I could do was to wrap him with heavy bags that had been filled with sugar. We were rescued by civil defense people in a small fishing boat. They took baby Waseem and fortunately an ambulance was waiting nearby.”

Waseem was rushed to Gaza’s Indonesian hospital. There, his condition improved.

Israel destroyed more than 1,300 residential units throughout Gaza during the May attack. Almost 6,400 were damaged to a significant extent.

The human rights lawyer Salah Abdel Ati is among those whose property was bombed.

He had devoted a great deal of time and money towards building a three-story house in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza. Completed in 2019, the building included an apartment for each of his adult sons.

Both of his sons – Muhammad and Waseem – got married the following year and moved into the apartments above their parents on the ground floor.

Muhammad and his wife Hadeel took the first floor apartment. Waseem and his wife Marah went into the second floor.

The newly married couples both became parents to baby girls soon afterwards. By Gaza standards, the family were reasonably comfortable, though both Muhammad and Waseem were unemployed despite having university degrees.

Then came Israel’s attack in May 2021.

The family’s home is close to the Hala al-Shawa clinic, which caters to mothers and children. It was one of many healthcare facilities bombed during Israel’s offensive.

Israel’s bombardment of the clinic occurred on 11 May.

The bombardment was so powerful that it also caused damage to windows, doors and walls in Salah Abdel Ati’s home.

Later that same day, the home was damaged yet again when another explosion occurred nearby. The family were at home at the time but were not injured.

Because of that damage, the house started to tilt. And when the rains came in winter, the problems worsened.

Gaza’s works ministry requested in February that the family evacuate their home and recommended its demolition. Assessments carried out by the ministry indicate that the building is at imminent risk of collapse.

Waseem and Muhammad, along with their parents, have been forced to find accommodation away from the shared building since the evacuation. Muna, their mother, is hoping that the extended family will be back living together before long.

She is thinking about renting a house for the extended family until such time as they can build a new home. Yet with the shock of losing her home still raw, she has not yet drawn up clear plans.

“We used to be a stable family,” she said. “Now we are torn apart. I don’t know what we should do.”

Her husband Salah is similarly distraught.

“I did not expect this to happen,” he said. “I put all my money into building this house. Now we have nothing left.”

Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza