First in a two-part series
Near the border with Israel, the remains of splintered homes in the Gaza Strip are being ground up.
Thousands of homes were destroyed by Israel's winter offensive into the Gaza Strip nearly a year ago, when Israel sent its troops into Gaza to stop Palestinian rocket fire on neighboring Israeli communities.
Now, Palestinian men shovel piles of rubble into a machine — locally invented a few months ago — that is used to make bricks.
Yassir Abu Jarad, a worker making bricks, says there is no shortage of raw materials. Slabs of broken concrete from the destroyed homes are brought to the site by donkey-drawn carts. They are then ground up and made into makeshift blocks.
"You can't rebuild your whole house with these. They aren't strong enough. We only sell 100 or 200 for people to complete repairs if they suffered partial damage," he says.
Israel prohibits construction material, including cement and glass, from entering the Gaza Strip. It says those items could be used for military purposes by the militant group Hamas, which controls the coastal enclave.
So Gazans have to improvise, Abu Jarad says.
"It's so ironic. I buy this rubble from people who have had their houses destroyed, and then sell it back to them," he says.
A year after the war in Gaza, there is still a housing crisis, says Christer Nordahl, the deputy director of the U.N. field office in Gaza.
"All the destruction and all the damages that were caused in the war in December, January, is still the same. Nothing has been repaired. Nobody can do anything," Nordahl says. "Winter is coming, they are suffering, and they will continue to suffer even more," he says.
One of the biggest problems, residents say, is overcrowding and the stresses that it is putting on families.
In the Tawam neighborhood of Gaza City, families have built makeshift homes out of rubble bricks, old tires and metal sheeting. What was once a middle-class area now looks like a shantytown.
Hoson Jarbou lives with seven other people in a tiny dwelling made of mismatched blocks recovered from her flattened home.
"It's been a very painful year for me. I cannot describe this year. I lost everything. Now we are living on top of one another, it's so crowded. When it's raining, the water seeps in. Kids are getting sick. Rats run into the house," she says, weeping.
Her 30-year-old daughter, Sabrine Shinar, and her child used to live here, too. But there is simply no room now. So Shinar shares a room with her husband and his first wife — an embarrassing and uncomfortable arrangement.
Shinar refers to last year's war as a second nakba, or catastrophe — the word Palestinians use to describe the creation of Israel in 1948.
"This is even worse than the first nakba. We have been totally forgotten. At least before, the refugees found someone to help them. No one cares about us now," Shinar says.
Hoson's other daughter, Hala Shinar, has had to move into the home of her fiance's relative. The 24-year-old says many families in Gaza now have permanent guests like her.
"There's no privacy, no freedom. I don't want to use too much electricity to turn on the heater. At meals, I eat very little. If I'm hungry, I can't just go to the kitchen because they may say, 'She eats too much,' " she says.
But she is better off than her fiance, she says. She takes us to his house.
In a cramped living room, a woman in a long white veil kneads dough into large flat circles, then places them carefully on a sofa.
Um Wasim — the family matriarch — says there are now seven families staying with her. She bakes 120 loaves a week to feed them all. People sleep on the living room floor, and one woman and her child camp out in the storeroom. There is bedding and clothing everywhere.
"And there is arguing all the time. They fight over who sleeps where, over food, the bathroom, water. This house is too small to accommodate all these people," she says.
But there is no choice, she says, and no end in sight. She knows she is lucky to have a roof over her head. But she says she doesn't know how long they can cope.
"We live without hope. We depend on charity, and we have no future," she says.