In the rubble of displacement, a search for home

"Home sweet home," that timeless cross-stitched sentiment, is taking on poignant new meaning this month for hundreds of Palestinians whose homes are now nothing but a memory.

In the middle of the night, the Israeli Army bulldozed dozens of houses in the Gaza Strip, retaliating for the killing of four soldiers by Palestinian militants. Newspaper photos show women weeping amid the rubble, searching for any trace of their belongings. For now, displaced families are living in tents supplied by the United Nations refugee agency.

Such demolitions are a recurring story in this war-torn region of the Middle East. But these latest acts of destruction symbolize anew the fragile state of housing for millions around the world.

Between 1991 and 2000, 34 million people - refugees and the internally displaced - fled their homes as a result of war, persecution, and human rights abuses around the world, according to the US Committee for Refugees. For many, a home remains an elusive dream.

Bulldozers are no respecters of national boundaries. Pamela Jooste, a white South African novelist, records the cruel dislocation of various racial groups under apartheid in her moving novel, "Dance With a Poor Man's Daughter" (London: Black Swan, 1999).

Set in Cape Town 60 years ago, her story portrays a time in South Africa when the government classified people by race, then forced them to live in designated areas to enforce racial segregation. People had to vacate their homes before bulldozers arrived. Then they were resettled in housing projects elsewhere.

The book's narrator, 11-year-old Lily, and her family are part of Cape Town's "coloured" community. As they await orders to vacate their beloved house, she says, "All we worry about are the piles of bricks where there used to be buildings."

She adds, "Every morning when we put our heads out over our front gate and look down our hill, we see another one of the old places is gone, and the bulldozers are already busy knocking down even more, and there's dust everywhere."

Lily's dread of bulldozers stands in sharp contrast to the anticipation that fills the air in leafy American suburbs whenever a bulldozer razes "one of the old places" to make room for a larger house. Here, the rubble serves as a symbol of prosperity and progress.

But even in the US, bulldozers have brought a sad end to makeshift housing for the poorest Americans. Over the years they have leveled tent cities in Seattle, Marin County, Calif., and Los Angeles.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown calls homelessness an "intractable" problem. Increasingly, lawmakers around the country are cracking down on street people, banning sleeping in public.

Last week, the National Coalition for the Homeless ranked San Francisco, New York, and Atlanta as the three "meanest" cities for their treatment of the homeless. There, thebulldozers are figurative rather than real. But the result is the same: no place to live.

Urban sidewalks were never meant to double as bedrooms and homes. But somewhere in cities there must be space - and the will - to provide safe, warm, stable quarters for those in dire need.

A roof over one's head counts as the most basic of human needs and rights. The willful destruction of housing, or the refusal to construct it, remains a cruel act, whatever the supposed justification.

It seems so little to ask: a bed, a bath, a place to cook and to call "Home Sweet Home," however humble, without bulldozers or threatening authorities in sight.

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