20 August 2014
I was in Gaza last weekend to document ActionAid’s aid work on the ground, enabling people who have lost everything to buy essential food and supplies.
I entered the Strip through the Erez crossing – an entry point solely for aid workers, journalists and a handful of Palestinians receiving medical treatment in neighboring countries. Every other Palestinian in Gaza is only able to leave or enter the area if they manage to get a permit under exceptional circumstances.
As I walked down what is informally known as ‘the long walk’ – a 1km stretch of no man’s land that leads into Gaza, I bumped into several journalists who were leaving. One of them who had been to war zones all over the world told me: “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Devastation in Ash Shuja’iyeh
After I got through, I made my way to Ash Shuja’iyeh, a town in the east of Gaza and one of the worst hit areas in this war. Row upon row of homes were flattened and those left were black with smoke from fires. Families left with nothing but the clothes on their back were searching through the rubble to find anything they might be able to salvage – a last memory or something that could attach them to the life they once had.
A family beckoned me over to where they were sitting on barrels and broken plastic chairs. The one chair that wasn’t broken, they immediately offered to me. I spoke to a 65-year-old man named Jabber. He had worked hard all his life to be able to own his own nut factory and to buy a home for his family. He was ready to retire and to hand over the business to his sons and was proud of what he had achieved.
“This is my home”
But all of that was for nothing. He was now sitting in what was not only the rubble of his home and factory, but the memories and achievements of his entire life. His money was tied up in the business and today he has only 700 shekels (£120) left in the bank. I asked him why he was sitting here. “This is my home,” he said simply.
Jabber and his family stayed at the site of their home during the day and returned to the school they were sheltering in by night. They have little access to water and food, yet despite this, they offered to share the little they had with me. Dignity, resilience and hospitality are at the heart of Palestinian life and I was so pleased to see this spirit had not been destroyed.
Essential supplies help rebuild lives
From there I went to where ActionAid was distributing vouchers for families left with nothing so they can stock up on essential supplies such as food, blankets and clothes. I felt awkward as they thanked ActionAid and me for our help. The support we are offering can never replace what they lost, yet still, the items they were buying will relieve their suffering and without them they might sleep another night without a blanket, or go another day without food.
Aleh Assad used her voucher to buy blankets, food and new clothes for her brother’s unborn child. “We are strong people, we will rebuild these memories,” she said. “We just need some help right now whilst we have nothing.”
Physical destruction and emotional trauma
Aleh is one of the 100,000 people whose homes have been completely destroyed. But as well as the physical destruction in Gaza, a lasting memory for me on this trip was the vacant look in the eyes of the children. They have suffered enough. For any child over six years old, this is their third conflict and the UN estimates that 400,000 children will be in need of psychosocial support.
The adults too, are suffering from extreme levels of trauma. They are not only thinking about their survival, but that of their children who are asking very difficult questions like “When are we going to die?” On top of this they have practical responsibilities: needing to rebuild their homes and find new ways to earn money when their factory, office or farmland has been destroyed.
Help deal with the emotional fall out of conflict
ActionAid’s emergency programme in Gaza will be expanding. We have a history of providing psychosocial support in conflict working with women and young people and we will continue to be there to help those who need it most.
On July 7 2014, renewed conflict broke out between Gaza and Israel, which has to date left over 2,000 Palestinians dead. This is why the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which brings ActionAid and 12 of the UK’s other leading aid agencies together in times of crisis, has launched an appeal to help the 1.8 million people affected by the conflict.
Further reading on Gaza: