Video: Nahr al-Bared refugee camp residents describe life under Lebanese army siege

Nahr al-Bared refugee camp remains unrebuilt and under siege five years after it was destroyed.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Editor’s note: in this guest post, The Electronic Intifada contributor Moe Ali Nayel translates videos found on YouTube featuring interviews with residents of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The camp was destroyed in the summer of 2007 after three months of fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, a militant group that had infiltrated the camp, and has been under tight control by the Lebanese army and security forces ever since.

The military’s control of the camp means that the camp, which used to be a major market in northern Lebanon, has struggled economically. Most of the camp has yet to be rebuilt, further displacing residents, who are refugees who have been displaced in some cases several times during their lives. (The camp of approximately 30,000 residents was completely depopulated during the three months of fighting in 2007.)

Tensions have only increased after the Lebanese army shot dead a 16-year-old bystander, Ahmad Qassim, during clashes that erupted after a motorcyclist was stopped at a checkpoint in the camp on 15 June. Camp residents have gone on general strike and there have been ongoing protests since the youth’s death. Meanwhile, residents are demonized in the Lebanese media, prompting some to put out their own narrative of what conditions are like in the coastal refugee camp.

No space to bury the dead

In this video we see an elder from the camp elaborating on the second wave of clashes that erupted in Nahr al-Bared camp on 18 of June. Clashes started when thousands of people marched in a funeral procession from Baddawi camp, 15 kilometers away, to Nahr al-Bared to bury Ahmad Qassim, a bystander who was killed by the Lebanese army when they stopped a motorcyclist at a checkpoint. Clashes between the Lebanese army and the protesters broke out during Qassim’s funeral when Foad al-Loubani, sitting on his balcony, was shot by the Lebanese army. His brother was also shot in the leg while trying to drag the wounded man inside the apartment.

In the video, the camp resident expresses frustration at the severe injustice the Lebanese army shows towards the Palestinian residents of the camp. He emphasizes the influence of the Arab revolutions on the people of Nahr al-Bared camp, galvanizing the people to take to the streets to demand an end to the military siege on the camp:

The Palestinian point of view, in Nahr al-Bared, is still unexposed to public opinion regarding what is going on in the camp, since before the battle of Nahr al-Bared in 2007. We [Palestinian refugees in Nahr al-Bared] consider the battle that happened in al-Bared was against the Palestinians of Nahr al-Bared. Fatah al-Islam was nothing but a pretext fabricated to strike the camp. We were told this by a Lebanese MP: Nahr al-Bared was bombed and slaughtered because guns were smuggled from the camp to Gaza. If smuggling guns to Gaza is a crime and was condemned by the Lebanese public then may God help us. What happened in Nahr al-Bared in 2007 is no victory for anyone, but it’s a defeat, a shame and an embarrassment to anyone who claims it as a victory.

From whom was this victory taken? We are not defending Fatah al-Islam, we never defend them.

When they announced [in 2007] that there was al-Qaeda in Nahr al-Bared we [residents of the camp] started looking at each other and wondered where they came up with this information, and we started wondering where is the al-Qaeda in Nahr al-Bared. Then, how come the state knew all along that there was al-Qaeda in al-Bared and they kept increasing [fighters coming into the country then the camp]? If they knew that they were entering the camp, how come the political faction that facilitated their entry was never in question?

Why is the camp still taken hostage for five years now, and we are approaching the sixth year of the siege?

If they say that the battle is not against the Palestinians in Lebanon, then how come Mr. Fouad al-Siniora [the former prime minister] mentioned during a meeting with the Americans, as Wikileaks said, that we can’t bomb two camps at the same time. This means that their plan is to launch wars against the camps.

Why? We don’t know. What kind of crime did we commit? We wonder if in the Lebanese dictionary or the dictionary of the UN and that of Ban Ki Moon there is a statement that suggests collective punishment. Isn’t it collective punishment, what is being applied to us? Why? Are we separate from the rest of humanity? Are we insects? Why do they view us this way?

Why are one side [Lebanese people] divine and another [Palestinian people] always condemned? Why this holiness? Are they angels? Are they not human beings like the rest of us?

Even if they are Lebanese soldiers or the leadership of the Lebanese army, what harm did we do to them?

Every person should know this; that this land was purchased by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the ’70s. It was bought to be owned by the Palestinians. It was registered under the name of Sammed and the sons of the Palestinian martyrs. This land is right next to the graveyard that is completely full with the dead and there is no space any more to bury the new dead.

Do you want us to bury them standing? Do you want us to dump them is the sea? Do you want us to burn [cremate] them?

The state knows it all. The Muslim sheikhs know it. We explained it to them, we pleaded to them all but there was never an answer to our pleas, unfortunately. We asked the Mufti of North Lebanon, Malek al-Shaar, to come visit us, and see for himself but it has been 3 years now and he never showed up.

Are we aliens? Is there a difference between a Palestinian Muslim and a Lebanese Muslim? Is there a Lebanese Mohammad [the Prophet] and a Palestinian Mohammad in this country? Is there a Lebanese Quran and a Palestinian Quran in this country?

Of course we are not sectarian; we don’t have any sectarian hate to any in this country.

I’m reaching out to the Maronite Patriarch in this country, and I ask him to involve himself to fix the situation in Nahr al-Bared. Otherwise we will be marching towards a disaster.

“The motivation that makes the youth throw their bodies in the face of bullets is the severe oppression. It seems that no one [in Lebanon] has learned anything from the Arab revolutions. The intensity of repression is pushing people to die. No one likes death. No one would wish to die.

The house where the problems started is a house owned by a Palestinian but he has been kicked out of his home so the army can occupy it. Is this the kind of justice that the Lebanese army wants? What is the Lebanese army doing inside a house in the Nahr al-Bared camp?

Let’s assume that we accepted the siege on the outskirts and the surroundings of the camp with barbed wires. What do they want from being inside Nahr al-Bared?

They first invented this excuse of the ruins. [The Lebanese authorities claimed there were archeological ruins under the camp, so they couldn’t continue with the rebuilding process.] We have built Nahr al-Bared many times, and dug it up many times: once for sewage infrastructure, and other times to take out sand and stones to use as building material, but this I will talk about another time.

The house that the problem started around is a house of a Palestinian man who still cannot return to it. It would have been better for everyone if the army had withdrawn from the house, but according to some they evacuated the house and set up a base on the rooftop of the same building.

The funeral was a big one, around 30,000 [attended], and the army shot and killed those who were having coffee on their balcony. They know this man [Foad al-Loubani] who they killed, they had coffee with him in the past; his brother was shot and injured as well. They killed him and they knew him. He has nothing to do with any political activism or even a general sense of the struggle.

We want Sammed, we want Sammed back [Sammed is the name of the land occupied by the Lebanese army, adjacent to the graveyard, since 2007]. They say that the army or the state now own Sammed. How did they get to own it? Cheating?

They say that time has passed and it’s too late now to contest its ownership. We want Sammed so we can bury our dead. We have no other place to bury them. This land was paid for by the Palestinians and the PLO. It’s forbidden to be owned by anyone else, for a military base or any other thing.

Finally, I want to address Walid Jumblatt [the Lebanese Druze leader of a parliamentary bloc] to send us the minister of state, Wael Abou Faour, accompanied with a permit from the government and the army to negotiate with us [the people protesting] and not with the political factions.

Our political factions cheated on us, sold Palestine and Jerusalem. What do we do? We are not the way we used to be in the ’70s. Those [political factions] are traitors, literally traitors. They sold Palestine; they sold the right of return. They sold al-Aqsa mosque. It’s as if we don’t have an enemy anymore, they make us feel like we have to apologize to the Jews [Israel] and tell them it’s all our fault, we are the aggressors. They [the Palestinian Authority] want us to say this land is yours and it’s not ours. This is what Mahmoud Abbas wants.

I call on the Patriarch, I call on Talal Arslan (another Druze leader), I call on Walid Jumblatt, I call on every honorable lawyer, I call on every honorable journalist, I call on every human with an awakened conscience in this country to mobilize for our wellbeing. We are ready to die because we have lost hope in life. We don’t accept this life anymore; this is our reality.

We warned them in the past years: don’t test our patience please. Don’t test our bravery please. Don’t test our humanity please.

There is only one thing left they haven’t said to us yet: to a man sleeping with his wife; get up so we can sleep in your place.

“We are not street thugs taking it to the street”

In this video, a protest organizer emphasizes the political independence of the ongoing demonstrations in Nahr al-Bared camp. Camp youth have been protesting the tightening of the Lebanese army siege following the killing of Ahmad Qassim at a checkpoint in the camp on 15 June. The organizer also brings up the issue of the cemetery; it is not customary in Islam to cremate the dead so it is an indication of the camp residents’ desperation that they are considering asking the Mufti of Lebanon to issue a religious decree allowing for the cremation of the dead and for disposing of their remains at sea:

First of all it’s a must for people outside the camp to know: we are not street thugs taking it to the street. We don’t belong to political factions. This point you need to focus on: we don’t belong to any [political] scene, we don’t belong to the northern scene [the political clashes in north Lebanon between supporters of the Syrian opposition and supporters of the Assad government], we don’t belong to the southern scene [the Hizballah alliances], we don’t belong to any system or to the outside of the camp. We have a set of demands in the name of the people of Nahr al-Bared, the people of Nahr al-Bared.

We are in the street protesting, and we have demands. First, just so we can start from the beginning: the reason that sparked the problem is not the shooting that happened but rather the ongoing pressure that is five years old. We have been living, in the last five years, under military rule. To list the military rule in detail: first we enter our camp with permits, our women and sisters are being searched at the checkpoint.

We have a specific slogan for our protest, which is the lifting of the military rule. This includes: the canceling of the permit system, give us back the private property, give back the public property. We have a problem in the camp called the problem of the graveyard. We have suggested to all the Palestinians in Lebanon that we get together and go to the Mufti of Lebanon to ask him to issue us a fatwa allowing us to cremate the dead and dump them in the sea. If this fatwa is possible, khalas [that’s it], we don’t want the land of Sammed and we don’t want the football field.

“We don’t have guns, we don’t have rifles, they took everything”

This video is an interview with the motorcycle driver who was stopped by the Lebanese army check point inside Nahr al-Bared camp on the night of Friday, 15 June. The motorcycle driver was asked to show his papers and he did, but complained about the abrasive treatment by the army, leading to one soldier hitting him in the face with a rifle butt. People started gathering in protest and the army fired live rounds of bullets, which led to the killing of a bystander, Ahmad Qassim:

The military issued a statement that I passed the checkpoint without my papers for the motorcycle. Here are the papers of the motorcycle; I have them on me. I gave them the papers of the motorcycle; he [the officer] saw them and told me to stand aside.

They pulled their guns on me and shot in the sky, and later brought more troops and entered the camp and we clashed with them. Then they came and took my niece, then people came and got involved [in a quarrel] with the army. Armored vehicles came in and shot at the people.

The papers of the bike are on me and the bike is still with me. Every day I enter and exit and pass checkpoints and no one stops me.

It’s been five years that we have coexisted with them [the army in the camp], them on their own and us on our own. But when they enter the camp, harass our girls and women, that’s why now we won’t allow them to do this.

Why are they walking in the alleys? [People have complained about the army passing through narrow alleys which look onto private residences; they feel this is an invasion of privacy.]

We don’t have guns, we don’t have rifles, they took everything. They took our blood.

We didn’t attack the army or any other person. They attacked us.

These are the papers for the motorcycle and you have filmed the papers. Go show it to the world.

The army started aiming and shooting

In this video, the brother of Ahmad Qassim, the 16 year-old who was shot on the night of Friday, 15 June, testifies:

My brother was standing with the guys on the corner of the corniche at Cafe Ayaid. The military was there, standing around with guns and the guys where there. Some wanted to throw stones.

This is the most we can do, throw stones, just like the children of Palestine. Then they [the army] started aiming and shooting. Some [among the army] were shooting to the sky; others were aiming while shooting. Some [of the army] were fine with the shooting and enjoying it; others were against it.

He [his brother, Ahmad Qassim] was shot in the head and was martyred at the corniche turn. He used to deliver water to houses on a motorcycle; this was his job. On that day it was his day off.

When the shooting happened he [Ahmad Qassim] was standing by to see what was going on and they [the army] shot him in the head. May God have mercy on his soul.

They [the army] were on the street next to the Jerusalem mosque, so we heard shooting. We went to see what was going on and found that they were fighting over a motorcycle; they wanted to take [the driver’s] papers. He had his papers, but they wanted to take the motorcycle; it turned into a tashbih [thuggery] scene. They wanted to take the motorcycle and it grew from “you won’t take it,” “we will take it.” Then they arrested the guys and started beating them, the beating was the kind cows can’t endure. Guys came to defend their brothers and asked [the army] why, and what you are doing, why, why?


Moe Ali Nayel

Moe Ali Nayel is a journalist and fixer based in Beirut.