Najwa cleans the houses of the rich in Beirut. She lives with her son in the limbo spreading between the Stadium (Cite Sportive) and the Sabra Palestinian camp. Sociologists often refer to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon as a “space of exclusion”: the laws governing life in the camps are different from those governing life in the rest of Lebanon. Najwa’s neighborhood is an exclusion from the exclusion: no laws apply there.
Najwa’s one-room house has been put together from various materials: a bit of cement, some wood, and a couple of glass windows. Electricity and running water are occasional guests. There is a small platform in front of the house where she keeps plants in old powdered milk containers. She sits there sometimes in the evenings after a day’s work and talks to her neighbors.
They have drifted in from all over the place. Some are Shia from the Bekaa, some from the south, some are Sunni from ‘Aarsal, in the Bekaa, and others are settled nomads. There are also a few houses built from wood, plastic and corrugated iron, where Nawar (Roma or Dom) people live. They were all brought here by poverty and the need for shelter.
The area is known as “Behind the Sport City.” For the past three years, its inhabitants have been living in tremendous tension. The sectarian parties of Lebanon have found fertile ground among the poor. There are many reasons for that: occasional payments and aid, the need for protection when the bulldozers will come to clear the illegal settlement, but also fear. An irrational perhaps, but very powerful fear from “the other,” a state that was cultivated by the various sectarian media in the past three years.
“Behind the Sport City” sits in the middle of an explosive cauldron: The Future Movement’s Tariq al-Jadida stronghold to the north, Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party-controlled Wata Mussaytbah to the west, the Palestinian camp to the east and the Rihab neighborhood dominated by Amal to the south. Around Najwa’s house, everybody was armed, but the government coalition Future Movement’s militias were the most powerful. They became bolder after the events of the Beirut Arab University last year, when organized shooting took place between Amal and Future Movement supporters and resulted in several dead and wounded.
Last Wednesday, Najwa told me, the Future Movement militia established armed presence around her and shot at the houses of opposition supporters. Many left. When the skirmishes started on Thursday afternoon, the neighborhood filled up with armed men. She looked out of her door and saw her neighbors sitting outside the house. Their 17-year-old son stood up and walked towards the street. He was shot and died there.
Najwa and her son left the house in a hurry and ran down the hill to seek shelter in Sabra. The Palestinian camp was boiling, filled with armed men. Hamas and Fatah supporters were eying each other menacingly. Hamas’ people support Hizballah, and Fatah are sympathetic to Hariri and the Future Movement. But when the night fell, they all joined rank as the camp began to tremble. As the sound of explosion and gunfire increased, a rumor had spread through the camp: Samir Geagea men, the Lebanese Forces, were coming back to massacre everyone, as in September 1982. Najwa tells me that as of this moment, the camp established serious guard rounds till the morning, and only relaxed when the news came that the opposition had taken over the city.
When she went back to her house, Najwa found the neighbors in mourning. Being Shia, their grief and anger had been adopted by the Amal militiamen. They had gone around shooting and terrorizing some of the known Future Movement supporters. The Nawar people, she told me, paid the price. But her neighbor’s son was dead.
The poor, regardless of color, race or creed, always pay the price.
Rami Zurayk is a researcher and a writer on food, environment and development issues. He lives in Beirut. His blog is at: http://www.landandpeople.blogspot.com/.