A peek at life in Beirut’s defunct Gaza Hospital

Originally published on Apr 24th 2013 for The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

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BEIRUT: From the outside, there are few hints that Gaza Hospital ever had a thing to do with medicine. Laundry hangs out the windows of the shabby 11-story building, and it is fronted by assorted shops and a sick cat named Black.

Indoors, there are metal grates that once divided wards and the wide hallways have an institutional feel. But nothing suggests that these decrepit rooms, where hundreds of people now live, once housed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s flagship hospital.

Nothing, that is, except for the residents. “This hospital was so famous it was better than the American University of Beirut’s Hospital,” brags Umm al-Saad, who lives on the third floor. Her neighbor, Hoda al-Aoudeh, confirms its reputation.

Built by Yasser Arafat’s PLO in the 1970s, Gaza Hospital boasted state-of-the-art facilities, a well-paid and skilled staff, and although it was then inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila, many of its patients were not Palestinian. Kazem Hasan, a Fatah official who was the head of statistics at the hospital, says more than 50 percent of its patients – all treated free of charge – were Lebanese.

The hospital weathered the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres with a few foreign staff after Palestinians, Arabs and patients who could move were evacuated. But it shut down in the late 1980s as the Amal Movement and various Palestinian factions embroiled the area in the bloody “War of the Camps.”

It didn’t take long for those left homeless by the war’s destruction to move into the vacant hospital.

Aoudeh took up a vacant room in 1988, after her Shatila home was destroyed. The hospital’s equipment had already been looted; even the elevator had somehow made its way out of the building.

“When we first came to the hospital there were no windows or doors, it was empty. … We used to take turns staying awake to keep watch,” she explains. Eventually, she and her family knocked an opening into another room, built a makeshift kitchen, and retiled their dwelling.

She has a big screen TV now, but for the first three years Aoudeh carried water home by jug and there was no electricity.

Aoudeh and the other Palestinians in the building don’t pay rent, as the building is still owned by the PLO. Hasan Sheshnaya, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut, explains that the PLO found rebuilding the hospital or simply renovating the premises untenable.

“Frankly, they [residents] asked for financial compensation to leave. That’s why we left the situation as it is,” and built other new hospitals, he says, adding that not all of those in the four building complex are Palestinian.

Sabra is no longer an official camp, although many Palestinians live there. In Beirut, the burden of medical care for the refugee community shifted to Haifa Hospital in the nearby Burj alBarajneh camp. It was never meant to be a full-fledged hospital, rather a smaller clinic.

Whereas the Ramallah wing of Gaza had four floors dedicated to obstetrics and gynecology, Haifa has a small wing with seven beds.

Dr. Hasan al-Saleh, an OBGYN who worked at Gaza Hospital and is now at Haifa Hospital, remembers with pride how “they referred patients from other hospitals to Gaza Hospital. And it was free.”

Not only was care excellent, he recounts that the salaries were better too. “Now, it’s different.”

Saleh’s office was in the basement, and he hasn’t been back since it closed. When he sees a picture of the underground space now, the affable doctor’s disposition shifts. There are tut-tuts.

“Miserable,” is his only word.

While Aoudeh’s two upstairs rooms are far from ideal, the current state of the underground part of Gaza Hospital’s Ramallah wing is nothing short of Saleh’s description.

On the way down the marled stairs it becomes difficult to breathe. It doesn’t feel like anything could survive in the dank space, let alone the bouncy Dolly, a Bangladeshi woman who is chatting in her towel with a Lebanese friend puffing on a nargileh pipe.

Dolly’s been in Lebanon for a year and three months. She lives alone and cleans houses for a living, paying $170 a month for her room.

She first stayed in a basement room with her sister, and eventually got her own. Down the hall seven women share a small room. It’s pretty bad down here, she concedes, but “I don’t have anywhere else.” She wants her Lebanese friend, who is married to an Egyptian man and pregnant, to find a way out. “It’s not healthy for a baby down here.”

It’s not likely to be healthy for anyone here, although there is intermittent electricity and water. And while Palestinians have often been at the bottom of Lebanon’s social heap, with restrictions on their movement and work, in Gaza Hospital it’s the foreigners who live underground.

Residents, like Mahmoud from Damascus, say no Palestinians live downstairs. There are Egyptians, Syrians, Bangladeshis and some Lebanese, and they have the easy camaraderie of a small village, freely moving from one room to the next.

Rent for these squalid spots is paid to two Palestinian men, Mohammad Hjab and Raafat Jakhlab. They say it was uninhabited until they renovated it several years ago. “The place was abandoned and the building was about to collapse, there was sewage water everywhere,” says Hjiab.

They renovated the basement, to a tune of $165,000, and now claim rent. They’re not sure who owns the building. Maybe the PLO, they say.

Hjab and Jakhlab take advantage of a largely absent state, but say the rooms they lease could be worse. They are equipped with fans, they point out.

Many people there do feel forgotten. Umm al-Saad, a Lebanese woman who has lived in the hospital for 20 years with her Palestinian husband, makes do without any assistance.

“The situation when we first came was disastrous,” she says. And still, “no one pays any attention to us. Sometimes charities come … and they promise to give us money. But they never do.”

For Aoudeh, even though her dwelling has been revamped, life in general is becoming more difficult.

“Our conditions are worsening. Our sons can’t find work,” she says.

Her university-educated son speaks four languages and “they won’t hire him because he is a Palestinian.” She’s uncomfortable with the foreigners downstairs, who she believes have an easier time finding work than her son.

But she is now tied to the place.

“I gave birth to five children in Gaza Hospital,” she declares, slightly stretching the turn of phrase – she actually delivered them at maternity units elsewhere in the city. Two of her sons have moved out, but just within the building. For now, they are staying put.