BORJ AL-BARAJNEH - Community leaders in Lebanon’s largest refugee camp, Borj al-Barajneh in southern Beirut, say thousands of Palestinian families have fled the area around the camp, and sought safety inside it, straining its fragile resources. Terrified families, they say, are now living as many as 16 persons to a room.
“This camp is a disaster area,” says Abu Zaher al-Habet, a member of the Popular Committee that organises the camp. “Ninety percent of the people are unemployed. Sixty percent live below the poverty line. We have no running water normally, only water trucks, and now even those are not making deliveries.”
Several generations of Palestinians here have been on the receiving end of Israeli attacks.
Zakia Hamad was just three years old when her mother was killed by the Israeli army in 1948. Forty years later, her husband, daughter and son were killed by the Israeli military during its occupation of southern Lebanon.
Today, the elderly woman sits on the floor of an underground bunker. All of a sudden, a small boy runs in clutching a red-hot piece of shrapnel from Israeli shells exploding metres away outside.
He brings news that Hamad’s aunt has been hurt by flying glass. “Oh god,” screams Hamad. “What am I to do?”
Across the bunker, Amne Assem huddles with her family - Alia, Tihaj and Jihan. She says her husband is old, tired and weak, and stayed behind in their shanty home on the edge of the Borj camp, now directly in the line of fire.
Tihaj is asked how her children are coping with the Israeli bombardment. “There are tears,” she says. “What do you expect?” Community leaders say the noise of shelling is traumatising children in the camp.
The slum of Borj al Barajneh has been cut off from food aid and services since Israel began its attacks on suspected Hizbollah targets in Lebanon, on 12 July. “We are trying to raise awareness of how urgent this situation is,” says Olfat Mahmoud, director of a woman’s organisation in the camp. “Maybe tomorrow the road access to the camp will be bombed, so we must get badly needed goods to them now.”
“This camp is a place of deprivation,” says Abu Badr Merte, another community leader. “Other people live in their country. We live in our country [Palestine] only in our hearts.”
Al-Habet from the Popular Committee deals with relief organisations, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The committee drew up a list of things it says people need - including children’s milk, grain, meat, bread, candles, fire extinguishers and medical supplies - and submitted it to UNRWA on 20 July.
Richard Cook, Director of UNRWA, says he received the written request on Monday. “We had made our regular distribution of foodstuffs to the camp ahead of this conflict, so we have to assess what additional needs they have and if indeed there are 9,000 extra persons taking refuge there.”
The camp normally houses about 20,000 Palestinians, with around 9,000 more living just outside. According to community leaders, it is this 9,000, or some thousands of them, who have come into the camp since Israeli shelling began.
The plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon is more overlooked now than in the past. Ten years ago, thousands of Palestinians died when the Borj camp was largely destroyed in fighting between Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Syrian-backed Lebanese Amal militia.
But since the early 1990s, community leaders say they have seen money spent by UNRWA on the camp, fall by as much as 70 percent.
“They are partly right about this,” concedes Cook. “It’s been an ongoing grumble as UNRWA has struggled with a chronic funding shortage. We do still provide the same quality of services but whereas camp residents may have had 50 patients to a doctor before, now it might be nearer 100.”
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