Dreaming of Nahr al-Bared

An already battered Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon is still being devastated by the fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, 16 July 2007. (Paul)

Last week a group of international activists, people from Shatila refugee camp, and a group of people from the Nahr al-Bared displaced committee held a meeting to discuss how to break the media blackout about the siege on Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. One of the men at the meeting asked us, “How do we get the story of our situation into the media on a daily basis so that people will go to sleep at night dreaming of people from Nahr al-Bared?”

How do we get people to place the situation of the displaced from Nahr al-Bared at the forefront of people’s minds? How do we get the media to cover the fact that according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society and Save the Children Sweden there are still 15 minors between the ages of 13-18 years old, 10 people between the ages of 18-35 years old, one 67-year-old man, and 21 women from Fatah al-Islam and 45 of their children trapped inside Nahr al-Bared. Two days ago one 17-year-old and one 19-year-old were killed by the army. Those remaining chose to stay inside the camp when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) attempted to negotiate their evacuation last week. And while the army allowed the ICRC inside to try to retrieve these people, no aid — neither food nor medicine — was brought into the camp. The army’s position seems to be that allowing aid inside necessarily means that one is supplying Fatah al-Islam. But there are human beings inside, including children, some of whom are under a month old. These children are facing an intense military bombardment every minute. But in this “you’re with us or you’re against us” universe one cannot even provide diapers to children in need.

As I ate lunch at a friend’s house last week in Baddawi refugee camp, approximately 10 kilometers from Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, I was struck by the intensity of the bombing down the road. Every minute I could feel the vibration of and hear the bombings — several times each minute. With several thousand Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared living in Baddawi I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that these families who fled this military bombardment must be reliving the trauma of their flight with each bomb each day. Each minute. How does one get the average Lebanese person or the average person more generally to understand, to feel, to work to end this siege? How can the situation be rendered more complex so that aiding families inside Nahr al-Bared is not automatically an indication that one supports Fatah al-Islam?

One reason why the media is asleep at the wheel when it comes to reporting about Nahr al-Bared is because the army is controlling journalists. While they may not be shooting at journalists as they did the first week of the conflict, they continue to keep them at bay. They remain outside the camp and at the mercy of the army for any information about the conflict. Few if any journalists are challenging the army — and those who have are reportedly being sued by the army for writing about the situation in a way that the army does not condone. Welcome to embedded journalism in Lebanon. Applying the US model of media coverage in Iraq, journalists must report from the Lebanese army’s vantage point if they wish to cover the story at all. This form of censorship does not allow for any coverage of the human cost of this war — of the people trapped inside or the people displaced from it.

The human cost of this war is multiple. Once again Palestinians are rendered invisible. There seems to be little outrage over Palestinian displacement in contradistinction to the sentiments of the displacement during last summer’s Israeli attacks on Lebanon. The people from Nahr al-Bared are facing a humanitarian and political crisis as a result of this situation. The pace of relief work has slowed down as NGOs are planning for their next phase — rebuilding Nahr al-Bared. But even in this instance people from Nahr al-Bared are invisible. All of the organizations — from UNRWA to the PLO — are keeping civilians at a distance as they plan for the return and rebuilding of Nahr al-Bared. No one from Nahr al-Bared has a seat at the table to discuss their own plans for how they would like to see their camp rebuilt or how and when they will return to their camp. Nahr al-Bared is not merely a refugee camp; it is a community, a neighborhood. People who are from this camp have lived through far too much displacement from the catastrophic disposession of historic Palestine in 1948, the nakba, to the destruction of Tel al-Za’atar refugee camp in 1976 by Phalangist militia to the current devastation of Nahr al-Bared. Given that Palestinians in Lebanon are far too aware of promises made and broken in the past is it any wonder that they are skeptical of promises to have their camp rebuilt when they are absent from any discussion about it?

Palestinians desire, demand, and deserve their right of return to Nahr al-Bared and to Palestine. Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared witnessed the return of displaced people from South Lebanon to their destroyed villages last summer despite the unexploded cluster bombs. While South Lebanon may not be an enclosed space, as are refugee camps, Palestinians have just as much right to control their own agency with respect to returning to their homes at their discretion. The multiple layers of trauma — from having to flee their homes yet again, to be under attack by armed men yet again, to reliving the bombing on a daily basis, to being rendered invisible by relief organizations claiming to assist or by the media refusing to cover their stories — need to be treated as soon as possible. The media and organizations must do their work and make the human cost of this war visible and active participants in telling their stories about their displacement, imprisonment, and needs at the present moment and in the future of their camp. It is only by placing these concerns at the forefront of the situation in Nahr al-Bared that we can make sure that people do indeed go to sleep at night dreaming about the people of Nahr al-Bared.

Dr. Marcy Newman is a Visiting Professor at the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut and a Fellow at the Initiative for Middle East Policy Dialogue. She is also a coordinator for the Nahr el Bared Relief Campaign (www.nahrelbaredcampaign.org). For more information please email Marcy Newman at marcynewman at gmail.com.

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