Families find a packed, sweltering refuge from the bombs

By David Blair

Palestinian medics treat a wounded boy following an Israeli air strike on a family house, at a treatment room of al Najar hospital in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo / AP
Palestinian medics treat a wounded boy following an Israeli air strike on a family house, at a treatment room of al Najar hospital in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo / AP

Until last week, the Rohme family lived in a house on the eastern fringe of Gaza City near an open field.

Today, they sleep on two mattresses in the bare corridor of a school, outside classrooms that have been transformed into sweltering dormitories for refugees.

Israel's offensive in Gaza has forced almost 90,000 Palestinians to flee their homes - a total that rises hourly. Only last Friday, the United Nations said that 30,000 people were sheltering inside its schools and other properties in Gaza; by yesterday, that figure had nearly trebled.

Maher Rohme, 36, left his home after a bomb landed nearby while the family slept at 3am last Monday. The blast shattered every window and showered the building with shrapnel, lightly wounding all of his six children, aged between 13 and six months. His wife, Hayet, passed out from shock.

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An ambulance took them to Shifa hospital, where their injuries were bandaged and Mrs Rohme recovered. With their house wrecked, they sought shelter at Beach elementary school, run by the UN Relief and Works Agency.

The Rohme family were among the early arrivals: by Sunday, 1,700 refugees had flooded the school. Inside the whitewashed building, flying the blue UN flag, every classroom has become a dormitory.

Families get two mattresses each, which they lay beneath blackboards and colourful displays of children's paintings. Perhaps 50 people sleep in every classroom, taking up every inch of floor space. Blankets are hung from clothes lines and used to screen off small areas, giving each family a semblance of privacy. But the noise is continuous and laundry hangs from every railing.

The Rohmes sleep in a relatively quiet corridor beside a staircase. "We have food, we have water, thanks be to Allah, but we left the house with only our clothes," said Mr Rohme.

Told to leave

As Israeli troops and tanks strike deeper into Gaza, more Palestinians are being told to evacuate their homes for their own safety. First, the people of the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, lying in the path of Israel's advance, were warned to leave.

Then the 80,000 inhabitants of Gaza City's eastern suburb of Shejaiya received the same alert. This area promptly suffered the heaviest bombardment of the campaign, devastating whole streets and killing at least 70 people.

Yesterday, the order was repeated for anyone left in Beit Hanoun to go immediately. The messages are delivered in the form of leaflets dropped from the air, or recorded voicemails in flawless classical Arabic. At least 200,000 people have now received such alerts - and the pounding of Shejaiya shows the price of ignoring them.

Deadly mistake

Two refugees at Beach elementary school made the mistake of venturing back to their home in Beit Lahiya on Sunday. Abed Rabo Zaid, 58, and his wife, Aisha, 54, wanted to check on their possessions and, in particular, to feed their chickens. As they performed this simple errand, they were both killed by a missile. "The rocket from the drone exploded near the place where the chickens were kept," said Musa Zaid, their cousin, who witnessed the incident. "The explosion was only 50 metres away from me. I ran to them and I saw they were cut to pieces: they died immediately."

Yesterday, the school's refugees gathered to remember the dead couple, who left three sons and four daughters.

UN struggles

The UN is struggling to provide food, water and bedding for the influx. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency, said the "huge displacement" was causing "unimaginable human suffering" that could only worsen the longer the fighting continued.

But a relief effort is under way: a Boeing 747 cargo aircraft delivered 45,000 mattresses and 10,000 blankets to Jordan yesterday. Mr Gunness said these would be taken by convoy to Gaza with the agreement of Israeli forces.

Whether the 61 UN schools and other properties now hosting refugees are genuinely safe is open to question. Every few minutes, explosions echo over Beach school, causing many children to jump in terror.

During the previous Israeli offensive in 2009, the UN headquarters in Gaza was badly damaged and its main warehouse burnt down.

Mr Gunness said that 60 UN properties had been damaged during the current operation, including schools and clinics, but it was unclear whether any had been directly targeted.

But the people of Gaza have few options when they are told to drop everything and flee. A partial blockade imposed by Egypt and Israel effectively confines them to this crowded territory, measuring only 25 miles long and seven miles wide at its broadest point.

They have little choice but to go to the nearest UN property, however congested it might be. Basma Ghanem, a trauma counsellor, helps the children sheltering in Beach elementary school. "The first thing we try to do is make the child feel safe. This is the first aim," she said. "But today in Gaza, no one can feel safe."

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