The children of Shatila: no future and no past

A child in Shatila refugee camp, Lebanon. (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

My wife Linda and I went back to Beirut, Lebanon recently to visit the American Community School that I graduated from in the 1950s. One of the counselors at the school, an American named David Bakis, has started a project to bring some cheer into the lives of children in the Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut. No easy task.

Every Sunday afternoon David takes 20 or so children from one of the Palestinian refugee camps on an outing, traveling by school bus. We accompanied David to Shatila refugee camp one Sunday. Shatila is the camp where a right-wing Christian militia massacred Palestinian men, women, and children in 1982, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the midst of the country’s ongoing civil war. Estimates of the number killed in Shatila and the neighboring Sabra camp vary widely between 500 and 3,000. The Israeli army occupied Beirut at the time and had the camps surrounded. They allowed the militia into the camps and did not stop the massacre when they knew it was going on.

The eight- to 10-year-olds of Shatila were waiting for us when we arrived. They were full of smiles, laughter and anticipation as they greeted David. They were very excited about the movie they were going to see that afternoon in downtown Beirut. The bright, smiling faces of the children were in contrast to the generally somber faces of the adults walking by. The children’s happy faces were also in contrast to the squalid conditions of the camp. The camp is made up of haphazardly constructed cement block buildings separated by narrow unpaved passageways where two people cannot pass without touching. The water supply of the camp is brackish and uncertain, as is the sewage and electricity.

David and the children left on the bus for the movie, while Linda and I were shown around the camp by two of its residents. We visited a memorial to the massacre and a home where a single mother lived with her children in one main room with a small room to the side for cooking. The present is terrible for the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon and the future is a blank. They cannot go back to Palestine and they are not welcome in Lebanon. Lebanon does not let them become citizens or own land. Seventy professions, and thus good jobs, are closed to them. One major cause of this exclusion is the “confessional” nature of the Lebanese constitution which carefully balances power among the different faiths, based on population. Making the 400,000 largely Sunni Palestinian refugees citizens would upset the current power balance among Christians, Shias and Sunnis. There is a prevailing attitude in Lebanon that the Palestinians were forced upon them from the outside and they do not have enough jobs and resources for their own people.

David has a friend who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan and ended up in Lebanon for family reasons. But Lebanon does not recognize his United Nations-issued identity card and will not issue new ID cards. He has been jailed twice now for not having valid ID, the last time for 50 days. I heard other similar stories.

The Palestinians are denied a past as well as a future. The camps and the schools in the camps are largely supported by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees. UNWRA no longer allows the teaching of the modern history of Palestine. Two students told us that they may not bring flags, buttons, bracelets or other items with Palestinian emblems to school, though UNRWA does not have an official policy on this.

We met many Palestinians in the camp who, like their children, were positive and resourceful in spite of the near impossible conditions. Humans are naturally positive and cannot sustain life in a state of dejection. But the human tragedy of life in the camps should not be allowed to continue for generation after generation as it has since 1948. The wonderful children of Shatila, like children everywhere, must be given a future of possibility and hope.

Curtis Bell is a retired scientist and peace activist living in Portland, Oregon. He was born in Bahrain and went to high school in Beirut, Lebanon.