BADDAWI REFUGEE CAMP, Northern Lebanon, 13 August (IPS) - Palestinians displaced by the fighting at the northern Lebanese refugee camp Nahr al-Bared have accused the Lebanese army of torturing and abusing civilians.
As the fighting between the Sunni Islamist group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army enters its 12th week, thousands of Nahr al-Bared residents have sought refuge in the nearby Baddawi camp. Many give detailed descriptions of days spent in detention under harsh interrogation.
Fadi Wahbi, 36, told IPS that he was detained for questioning by the Lebanese army as he fled Nahr al-Bared with family members. He was held for two days at the nearby Kobbeh military base and then transported, along with other young and middle-aged men who fled the fighting, to what he believes was the Ministry of Defense in Beirut.
There Wahbi’s long ordeal began. Prison officials accused him of belonging to Fatah al-Islam, and kept him blindfolded in a crowded prison cell for eight days with scores of others similarly accused. When he insisted on his innocence, they began to beat him.
“Every time I said that I was not lying, they struck a blow,” he recalled. “I did not know where the blows were coming from. I spent most of the eight days blindfolded and without sleep.” Prison authorities also tortured Wahbi, twisting his extremities almost to the point where he lost consciousness. Later he said he was forced to stand in excruciating positions for days.
“I expected it to last an hour or two, but they kept me standing, handcuffed behind my back, blindfolded, for 36 hours,” he said. “Every two or three hours I would fall to the floor. As soon as I hit the floor, someone would beat me up against the wall. It happened five or six times. Then I started to like falling, because it meant I could rest my legs. It was so painful that I preferred to fall and rest for a few seconds, even if that meant being beaten.”
Dozens of Palestinians were kept in a single room, without space to sleep and unable to communicate with each other.
“We were never allowed to stretch our legs. We slept handcuffed, sitting with our backs to the wall and legs bent,” he said. “If you stretched your legs, someone was there to kick you on your legs.”
He was eventually sent back to Kobbeh in northern Lebanon, and managed to reach a nearby hospital after his release.
The psychological toll was extreme. Wahbi recalled that “at one point, I was seeing things. Unreal things. One time I imagined a door opening up in the wall that led me to my family. I stood up and ran into the wall. A guard came to me and shouted ‘What are you doing? Are you trying to hurt yourself? You are not allowed to hurt yourself, only we are allowed to hurt you.’ And he started beating me.”
Wahbi’s story mirrors the testimonies of dozens of Palestinians, most of whom are too terrified to speak on the record. Milad Salameh, a nurse at the Shifa’ Clinic in the Baddawi camp, says he has seen more than 30 cases of abuse at the army’s hands.
“Many of the injuries we received,” he told IPS, “were sustained under detention, inside the army detention centers. Many people came with signs of torture, abuse and beatings. We saw signs of electrical shocks as well, and some even reported sexual abuses, such as rape by bottle.”
The Shahed Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, based in Beirut, has documented over 50 cases of torture of Nahr al-Bared residents. Its director, Mahmoud al-Hanafi, told IPS that the army has systematically ignored human rights in its battle with Fatah al-Islam, and called upon both the army and Fatah al-Islam to respect the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of civilians during wartime.
Lebanese army spokesperson Gen. Salah Hajj Suleiman told IPS that “the Lebanese army is a national institution and we abide by the laws of the government. We do not abuse civilians.” He added that “the Lebanese army doesn’t arrest anyone if they have no problems or criminal background.”
Fighting began in late May when Fatah al-Islam, which in the preceding months had established itself in Nahr al-Bared, opened fire on Lebanese security forces. The ensuing battle between the army and the militants has left hundreds dead, and many Palestinians accuse the army of attacking unarmed civilians.
In one incident recounted by displaced locals in Baddawi, and documented by the Shahed centre, Nahr al-Bared resident Nayef Salah Saleh attempted to drive a van with 25 civilians out of the camp. Witnesses claim that army snipers shot and killed Saleh, causing the van to lose control and come to a stop.
When Muntaha Abu Khalil, pregnant four months, opened the door she too fell in a storm of gunfire. The army then surrounded the van and detained many of its occupants, including three children. The children, including Amer Bahij Abdallah, 16, say they were then tortured.
Abdallah recalled that “my face was covered with a black cloth, and I was punched, beaten and given electrical shocks to force me to give information about Fatah al-Islam.” He said he had nothing to do with the group.
Since the fighting in the north began, hundreds of Palestinians claim to have been arrested and beaten at army checkpoints throughout the country. One Palestinian aid worker from Tripoli in Lebanon, who spoke anonymously to IPS, said that “about ten soldiers beat me up at a checkpoint because I was joking with a friend.”
Others, like Ahmad Hazbour, a former Nahr al-Bared resident, claimed that they were beaten and verbally abused at checkpoints and then detained.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Many came to Lebanon, and have lived in the dense, claustrophobic camps there ever since. The refugees are legally considered foreigners and are therefore barred from many basic rights enjoyed by Lebanese citizens, including a right to work (over 70 professions are proscribed). Nor can Palestinians in Lebanon own property or enter into the political process.
“The camp was attacked because we are Palestinian,” said Nahr al-Bared resident Muhammad Naddwi, 23, echoing a sense of discrimination felt by many Palestinians here. The camps have often come under fire from various armies — the Lebanese army destroyed the Nabatiyeh camp in 1973, and many Nahr al-Bared residents are displaced refugees from the Tel al-Zaatar camp, which was destroyed by Christian forces in 1976.
With their home destroyed and the memory of torture and abuse still fresh, many Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared are shaken and without hope.
“Some of them, when they came out of detention, came straight here to the clinic,” nurse Salameh said. “They did not want to talk to anyone or be treated. They just wanted a safe place where they could be on their own, and cry.”
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