As Mohammad trudged towards the Lebanese army checkpoint on the outskirts of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, he thought the nightmare of the last three weeks was finally over.
Unable to flee as gun battles and shelling razed their neighbors’ homes, Mohammad’s family had been stuck inside the camp since fighting first broke out between the Islamic militant group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army.
The army checkpoint was supposed to provide a safe haven for these desperate Palestinian civilians. Instead, Mohammad claims, this is where his journey of torture began.
I met Mohammad after hearing numerous stories from young Palestinian men that after fleeing from the fighting at Nahr al-Bared, they had been routinely detained by Lebanese military intelligence and that many had been physically abused.
Most were too scared to agree to be interviewed, but on Saturday morning a young man came up to me at the Baddawi Palestinian refugee camp where over 18,000 Palestinian refugees from Nahr al-Bared are sheltering. He asked if I wanted to meet their cousin who apparently had just been released from the Lebanese military the night before.
The cousin took me down a maze of crowded alleys and up about six flights of stairs, where I found Mohammad sitting gingerly on the couch surrounded by his family. He takes off his shirt and shows me huge bruises that cover his back and upper arms; red striped welts are also visible.
“I managed to escape the fighting with my wife and kids and my aunt,” he begins. “But as soon as we got out the camp, the soldiers separated us into two groups. They let the women and children go, and handcuffed the men.”
Then, Mohammad says, they were blindfolded and driven away in a large army truck. “We were not allowed to lift our heads up. We had to look at the floor and if anyone would lift his head up, they would start saying ‘put your head down you dog’ and you would get beaten on the head.”
The Lebanese soldiers began to curse the Palestinians, Mohammad claims. “They kept telling us we’re going to fuck you Palestinians, we’re going to fuck your mother and wife,” he says. “We’re gonna fuck the biggest and smallest one of you Palestinians. You people don’t deserve to be alive; you should be slaughtered, all of you.”
Mohammad says they were then taken to the Kobbeh military base near Tripoli. After a day and night of relentless questioning, Mohammad was told he was being released. But instead, Mohammad was blindfolded again and driven for two hours to what he thought was the Ministry of Defense just out of Beirut, the first in what would be a number of locations over the next four days.
(I was arrested for filming too close to Nahr al-Bared and had been at the Kobbeh military base in Tripoli four days before Mohammad claims he was taken there. On the way to be questioned by military intelligence, I had walked through a room packed full of young Palestinian men crouching on the floor as Lebanese soldiers stood guard above them. Apologized to and given fine Italian espresso, the treatment of this western reporter was first class. But it was interesting to sit in the major’s office and see a certificate on his wall that stated he was a graduate of a US Central Command program and that he had completed a US military course in ‘debriefing, interviewing and elicitation.’)
Upon arriving at what he claims was the Ministry of Defense, Mohammad says the soldiers forced him and the other men to kneel on the floor for what “felt like the whole day.” “Every time we wanted to stretch our legs, they used to beat us,” he said. “We would say, ‘For god’s sake, let us stretch our legs!’ And they would say, ‘What god? There is no god here.’”
After two days, Mohammad says an interrogator took him to a room and started beating him. “He used a whip on me, ” claims Mohammad. “That’s what the marks on my back are from. A big whip with metal on it.” Mohammad says other men then came and started kicking and hitting him on the head. “They beat me on the stomach I said please don’t, my stomach hurts. And they said, oh it hurts? Then we’re going to fuck it up.”
Next, the men apparently began tossing Mohammad against the walls and throwing him to the floor. “The main guy kept asking, ‘who are you working with?’ I said I’m not working with anyone. He said to me, ‘you helped them, you were there!’”
Indeed, many Lebanese are blaming the Palestinians for “hiding” Fatah al-Islam inside the Nahr al-Bared camp, even though the Lebanese government knew the group was there after the fighters held a press conference and went on Lebanese television in March this year.
“The soldiers kept saying ‘if you had nothing to do with it why didn’t you kick them out? Why did your PLO not do anything with them? We are going to slaughter you just like you slaughtered our soldiers,’” claims Mohammad. “I kept saying we had nothing to do with this, we are civilians. We are against the killings.”
Mohammad claims he was also forced to stand for hours on end, slapped if he started to fall asleep and threatened with electric wires that were promised to shock him. But the worst moment came, he says, when one of the soldiers pulled a gun to his head. “He put a gun next to my head and said I could just shoot you, you’re like a dog. Nobody would notice.”
Mohammad says he was forced to sleep on the ground in a room with mud on the floor using their thongs as a pillow. “We wanted to wash and pray and they wouldn’t allow us,” he claims.
The verbal abuse was almost as hurtful as the beating, says Mohammad. “If we touched them they would hit us on the hand and say we are dirty people and our families are all dirty. ‘Don’t touch me you’re dirty, you’re Palestinian, you’re a dog,’ they would say.”
After five days, Mohammed says they put him in a truck, drove him back to the military base in Tripoli and let him go. “They called my name and I got out of the truck and the intelligence officer said to me, ‘You’re a dog, a son of a dog. Just get the hell out of here.’”
Nadim Houry from the Beirut office for Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented numerous cases of Palestinians at Baddawi camp who have been detained and subjected to ill treatment. “From being beaten to detention for four or five days without charge,” says Houry, “young Palestinians are being stopped at army checkpoints all over Lebanon and sometimes beaten solely on the basis that they are Palestinian.”
Houry says HRW recognizes the army’s right to interrogate people leaving the Nahr al-Bared camp in order to determine if they are members of Fatah al-Islam, but not to use illegal and abusive treatment.
“It’s created a phenomenon where Palestinians are scared not only to leave Nahr al-Bared, but to even just leave the Baddawi camp where they are staying today,” Houry explains.
And, asks Houry, if the army really did believe these Palestinian men had connections with Fatah al-Islam, why were they released?
“They have been interrogated and released. This means that obviously there was no proof they are members of Fatah al-Islam. But most importantly, even if they were members of the group, it does not justify the use of abusive treatment,” he concludes.
However, these accusations of abuse and torture at the hands of the Lebanese army are falling on deaf ears here in Lebanon. Memories of the brutal civil war, coupled with the perception that the Palestinians were somehow complicit with Fatah al-Islam and the deaths of over seventy Lebanese soldiers, has created an atmosphere of unquestioning support for the military.
For the March 14 pro-government movement, this conflict provides the perfect opportunity to illustrate that the Lebanese army is ‘strong’ and that it ‘can defend the homeland,’ empowering their argument that there is no need for a resistance and that Hezballah should be disarmed. But its not just the March 14 pledging their support; the majority of the Lebanese public have united behind their army’s attack on Nahr al-Bared in an unprecedented manner.
Rallies drawing thousands have been held to pledge solidarity with the military and posters sporting pro-army slogans have taken place all over the country. The most common is a large billboard that seems to appear almost every three hundred meters on the road up to Tripoli. Upon a background of army camouflage is written “al-Amru Lak” a common Lebanese army expression that best translates as “The Order is Yours.”
The local media is also responsible for encouraging the Lebanese to unquestioningly give their army the license to do whatever is necessary to maintain this “order.” The army has forbid reporters to film soldiers anywhere near the camp and its surrounding checkpoints — an order that most Lebanese media have dutifully followed.
After interviewing Mohammad and filming his injuries, I offered the footage free of charge to different Lebanese television networks, but nobody would touch it. A news editor from New TV, well known for its critical reporting on the Lebanese government told me, “The army has the right to do anything when it comes to Fatah al-Islam and preventing terrorist attacks inside Lebanon.”
The response from Hezbollah’s al-Manar Television was more sympathetic. “Look, we’d love to cover this,” said my contact, “but we just can’t be seen saying anything against the army at the moment; it is just too sensitive.”
Responding to these allegations, the Lebanese army press office spokesperson said that the Palestinians were “liars” and that “we never hurt anybody, especially if they are civilians.”
The spokesman even denied that Palestinians were routinely taken away by the army and questioned after they left Nahr al-Bared camp, something I and other journalists have all seen happen with our own eyes (even if we weren’t allowed to film it.)
For Mohammad, his experience has left him feeling lost and vulnerable as a Palestinian in Lebanon. “We know that the Israelis are our enemies, but these are Arabs …” he says, trailing off.
Mohammad believes Palestinians won’t easily forget the injustice they perceive has been dealt to them by the Lebanese army. “The way the Lebanese army treated the Palestinians has now caused a lot of hatred inside us towards the Lebanese army,” he says.
“This will encourage people to join groups for revenge and I heard with my own ears people say, its OK. It’s only a matter of time. Those who got disrespected are not going to just forget about it,” he warns. “Some of the Palestinians now are hating the Lebanese now as people not just the Lebanese leaders. Their army has now created a hatred between the Lebanese people and the Palestinian people.”
Names in this report have been changed to protect subjects’ identities.
Sophie McNeill is a reporter with Dateline, an international current affairs program on the Australian public broadcaster SBS TV. She lives in Beirut.