Dispatch

The Eye of the Storm

During a lull in the fighting, Gaza’s residents returned to assess the damage and came away without hope.

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza — The destruction is total. No building has been left untouched by Israel's bombardment in the Masryeen neighborhood in this northeast Gaza town. Mounds of rubble line the streets where buildings once stood. Dead horses and donkeys lie in the road, stiff with rigor mortis. Even colors have been erased. The entire area is covered in gray cement dust, a monochromatic wasteland. The smell of death lingers in the air as the bodies yet to be retrieved from the debris decompose in the summer heat. The sounds of shelling and airstrikes have stopped but the buzzing of the drones remains.

A 12-hour humanitarian truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas took hold on Saturday morning, allowing residents displaced from the areas hardest hit by Israel's assault to return to their neighborhoods for the first time in days. Gaza health officials said more than 100 bodies were recovered during the lull, bringing the Palestinian death toll above 1,000, the vast majority of them civilians, including more than 200 children. Forty-three Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel have also been killed. On Sunday, as the conflict entered its 2oth day, Israel announced that it would extend the quiet for 24 hours, but a more lasting cease-fire remains elusive. (And by Sunday's end in Gaza, the fighting had resumed.)

"We don't just want a humanitarian truce; we want a total cease-fire that will end the siege. Truce after truce is not what we're looking for," Ihab al-Hussein, Hamas's deputy information minister, told me in an interview on Saturday in Gaza City. "This is not a real truce because that would mean Israel pulling out its tanks from Gaza," he said. "We didn't start this war; we don't want it. If you ask Palestinian people they say they want a cease-fire but with an agreement to end the siege."

In the hours leading up the temporary cease-fire, the Israeli air force dropped 100 bombs, each containing a ton of explosives, on Beit Hanoun, a town in northeastern Gaza close to the borders with Israel, according to Haaretz. Many of Beit Hanoun's 30,000 residents had fled the area.

The devastation is so complete that some residents who returned during the temporary cease-fire on Saturday could not locate where their homes once stood. A man walked alone in the middle of the road, surveying the wreckage. "This is a town of ghosts, not people," he said aloud to himself.

Hamza al-Masry, a 27-year-old from al-Masryeen, sat crouched atop a pile of broken cement and twisted rebar that used to be his family home, a four-story apartment building that once housed 50 people. He came back to try to salvage something. There was nothing left.

"I couldn't get anything out. I can't even find clothes," he said. "I only have the ones I am wearing." He says he left his home with his family on Monday and sought refuge in a nearby United Nations school. The shelter was shelled on Thursday as 1,500 displaced Palestinians were gathered in the schoolyard, awaiting buses to transfer them to another area.

Al-Masry said at least four shells hit the school, sending hundreds fleeing into the streets in panic. Sixteen people were killed and 200 wounded in the attack. Displaced again, al-Masry is now staying at another U.N. school, in Jabalia, further south. "We don't want a cease-fire anymore," he said. "After the destruction we have seen, all we want is resistance."

An initial 12-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting was all that the two sides could agree to. Israel rejected international proposals for a seven-day-long cease-fire on Friday, media outlets in Israel reported

"The ball is in Israel's court; it has to respond to the international community," Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman and member of parliament, told me in an interview on Sunday in Gaza City. "If the siege continues, the resistance will continue the siege of the airport in Tel Aviv," he said, referring to rocket fire out of Gaza that has disrupted flight traffic at Israel's Ben Gurion airport. "Our demands are the demands of the Palestinian people."

One of the bloodiest days of the conflict came on July 20, when Israel pummeled Shejaiya, a neighborhood east of Gaza City, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. Thousands returned to the area for the first time on Saturday after the temporary cease-fire came into effect at 8:00 a.m.

By midday, they poured out of the neighborhood, carrying what little they could salvage before the bombs started falling again. Clothes were bundled into sheets and slung over backs, mattresses piled on the roofs of cars, families' few remaining belongings crammed onto rickshaws and donkey carts. 

"It looks like another Nakba," said a bystander, referring to the Arabic for "catastrophe," the term Palestinians use for the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands during the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

On Shejaiya's al-Nazzaz street, every other building has been smashed into the ground. Debris is everywhere. Om Mohammed Sukkar sat on the curb opposite what is left of her home. A bulldozer cleared rubble away. She was waiting for it to dig her son's body from underneath the house. She had fled early on the morning of July 20, the day the assault on Shejaiya began. Her 25-year-old son, Mohamed, refused to leave. She said he was "in the resistance" and that she is proud of it. But she wants an end to the fighting. "We don't want war. We want to live in our houses," she said. "A temporary cease-fire is not enough."

Some Shejaiya residents had held out hope that their homes would be spared, only to find utter devastation. Ahmed al-Jamal, a 60-year-old grandfather, sat on a plastic chair in front of the wreckage of his home. "I had no idea it was destroyed," he said. He stared at the floor, picking absently at a piece of wire by his foot. "I came to get my things during the cease-fire and I found nothing. I don't know where we'll go."

His nephew, Ahmed al-Jamal, 27, said he called his mother in the morning to tell her the house had been razed and she had a heart attack upon hearing the news and was taken to hospital. "None of us are in the resistance," he said, adding that he volunteers for the Red Cross and his brother is a doctor at a children's hospital. "I am living in a U.N. school now but when the war ends I will come back here and set up a tent. This is my land -- I won't leave it for the occupiers to occupy."

At another torn-up building, Ataf Ettish, a Health Ministry administrator and a mother of four, sat across from her home, muttering words of prayer. The building's facade has been ripped away, exposing her daughter's bedroom. The walls are painted pink and blue. Ettish evacuated last week with her family and is now staying at a U.N. school. She said they are living 50 people crammed into a single classroom. "Imagine more than 2,000 people using two toilets," she said. "I never imagined I could live this life." According to the United Nations, at least 165,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced since the conflict began, more than double the number during Israel's 2008-2009 assault.

Ettish does not expect the temporary cease-fire to last long. "The worst is coming. We don't know what they are planning," she said. "I wish to see Netanyahu in Hell, burning there."

Even the shaky cease-fires are only temporary. Ettish's pessimism doesn't seem misplaced. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's attempts to broker a longer cease-fire have failed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that his government would do "whatever is necessary" to defeat Hamas. Hamas, for its part, said it will not stop fighting until Israeli troops are removed from Gaza and displaced residents are able to return home.  

In central Gaza City, the streets came alive during the pause in fighting. Traffic congested the roads, shops opened for business, and people rushed to banks to collect salaries and withdraw cash. In the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, the street market was once again bustling with the cacophony of urban life. Residents were stocking up on food and goods, expecting only a temporary respite. Many believe more bloodshed is in store.

"The war will continue," said Mohamed Shaaban, a 23-year-old selling roasted pumpkin seeds. "Negotiations won't help the Palestinian people. The Israelis have to pull out their tanks and open the crossings. People have no work, no future, and nothing to hope for here."

MOHAMMED ABED / AFP / Getty Images

Dispatch

Myanmar's Last Front

As the conflict in Kachin state wages on, civilians remain caught in the crossfire.

SHAN STATE, Myanmar — Shan, a 53-year-old farmer, wears a blue-and-white button-down shirt over her patterned longyi, a traditional Burmese wrap. She sits quietly with her family, next to the few belongings they were able to carry when they were forced from their home in April.

Shan, who gave only her first name, is one of nearly 1,000 villagers from Myanmar's northern Kachin state who have settled in an abandoned school in the small town of Namkham, in neighboring Shan state. The school is a temporary refuge set up by the Kachin Baptist Convention -- a locally based Baptist denominational body whose mission is to provide aid in Myanmar's ethnic-minority areas -- for people displaced by renewed fighting between Myanmar's army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an armed ethnic group. The school has 20 or so classrooms, which now house droves of families -- with about 30 people packing tightly into each room for shelter, marking their respective spots on the ground with a few blankets. Nearly 200 other people occupy the concrete grounds of a dilapidated activities hall, where chairs and tables have been pushed to the side to make space.

The displaced fled amid a Myanmar army offensive intended to target KIA strongholds. But, according to Shan, only civilians were under bombardment. "There were no [rebel] soldiers, but they attacked our villages," Shan says. "The government troops shelled our villages."

The displaced Kachin state civilians in Namkham join approximately 120,000 others who have been living in camps in northern Myanmar since 2011, when a 17-year-old cease-fire between the government and the KIA collapsed. Since then, the government has staged a series of offensives against the rebels, most recently in June.

The KIA is just one of myriad ethnic rebel groups that have taken up arms against the government, which has long been dominated by the country's ethnic Burman majority since Myanmar (then Burma) gained independence in 1948. Fueled by ongoing demands for greater political autonomy and the military's brutal tactics throughout the conflict, the rebellions have been waged for decades.

Yet in recent years, most of the insurgent armies have agreed to cease-fires with the government. Today, Kachin is something of a last front in what is often called the world's longest-running civil war -- one that continues to place civilians at risk.

An emergency aid worker with the Kachin Baptist Convention who requested anonymity said the army ramped up operations in Mansi Township on April 10, searching the forests for KIA guerrilla bases and chasing away civilians by firing mortar rounds.

"The people [at the school] are from the villages," he said, adding that civilians fled their homes on foot and hid until aid workers brought them to Namkham. "Fifty are still hiding in the forest."

***

Since Myanmar's 2010 elections -- the country's first in 20 years -- the government has instituted a series of noteworthy political and economic reforms. Yet the optimism that emerged with the dissolution of the military regime is fading. The government has largely failed to protect Myanmar's Muslim minority from ongoing sectarian attacks, progress on media freedom is backsliding, and efforts to reform the constitution, which still grants significant political privileges to the military, has stalled.

Meanwhile, the military continues to be implicated in serious human rights abuses in Kachin as it seeks to root out the KIA once and for all.

Two young Kachin men, Sang, 20, and Goon, 21, were among several plucked from in and around the state's Bamuyang and Dingga villages after the military shelled their homes. Standing among the others displaced on the school grounds, they explain how they were forced to porter for government troops, guiding a battalion through forested mountains to rebel positions.

"First they forced us to walk ahead along the path between the farmlands because the army was afraid of land mines. Later, when we reached the front line, the fighting started," says Sang. Goon recalls taking cover with the Myanmar army soldiers in a village during fighting. "We were so scared that we would die," he says.

The two men were released after one day when a local Kachin church intervened by presenting the battalion with a letter petitioning for their release. The young men eventually found their way to the school in Namkham.

Their story is not unique. On June 9, Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Southeast Asia, released a report documenting abuses of Kachin civilians by government forces over the past two years, including indiscriminate shelling, forced labor, torture, beatings, rape, and murder. "Most of the torture we documented appeared to occur with the knowledge and consent of commanding officers, in similar ways and in disparate locations, indicating the abuses are being carried out as a matter of state policy," says Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, adding that the president's office in Myanmar flatly denied the report's findings.

Such allegations, however, are not limited to the military. The KIA has also been cited for abuses. A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, for instance, implicated the rebel army in the use of child soldiers, as well as the use of unconventional weapons, such as land mines, over the years.

Wartime abuses are compounded by the dire humanitarian situation in Kachin, particularly for those displaced within KIA-controlled territory. In June 2013, the government allowed the United Nations to deliver aid to those displaced in rebel-held areas -- the first time in nearly a year. But despite the official easing of aid restrictions, in practice government checkpoints continue to largely restrict access to Kachin villages affected heavily by conflict. Thus local organizations, as opposed to international ones, play a significant role in documenting abuses and providing aid to the displaced. The Kachin Baptist Convention, for instance, relies on informal relationships with personnel on both sides of the conflict in order to anticipate when skirmishes will take place and to either help deliver supplies or escort villagers out of the area. Despite its efforts -- alongside those of several other smaller aid groups -- there is an undersupply of provisions to support the ever-increasing number of displaced civilians.

***

The government has upheld its pledge to hold talks on a nationwide cease-fire with an alliance of ethnic groups. Yet agreement with the KIA and the Ta'ang (Palaung) National Liberation Army, a rebel group in northern Shan state, have proved elusive. And the April clashes between government forces and the KIA, which together reportedly killed at least two dozen soldiers and rebels, could undermine the government's hopes for a nationwide truce that would bring all civil conflict to an end. (It's uncertain how many civilians were killed in the attacks.)

The government and the KIA did meet in May and June for bilateral negotiations, and the two sides established a peace-monitoring commission intended to help prevent further clashes. And a government advisor involved in Myanmar's peace process said he is confident tensions are going to recede. "Whatever the current situation is in Kachin state, both the government and KIA are committed to the peace process. Nothing is big enough to derail it," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Yet there is little evidence to support his optimism. The bilateral negotiations have not brokered any lasting de-escalation in hostilities, and there is no real timetable for the conclusion of talks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of civilians remain uprooted from their homes, with little hope of returning anytime soon. For the displaced, the prospect of future peace is overshadowed by the reality of what they have already lost.

Standing at the school in Namkham, Shan recollects how several people living near her have gone missing since the government shelled her township.

"Four persons are still missing. We don't know if they are still alive of dead," she says. "We need to find out."

Photos by Philip Heijmans