Nahr al-Bared is a Palestinian refugee camp in the north of Lebanon which has been home to about 40,000 Palestinian people, most of whom are the children and grandchildren of those who left Palestine in 1948. Some like Abu Mohammad were born in Palestine. He was ten years old, and next year it will be sixty years since the formation of the State of Israel was achieved through the ethnic cleansing of Abu Mohammad and so many others from their home in Palestine. He told me this as the two of us sat alone in the pitch dark while rats ran around beside our chairs at his house. As I left he went in to sleep alone amongst ashes and rodents, with no neighbors around him. Trying to believe that he still has something left to protect.
Between May and September of this year, a ferocious battle took place between the Lebanese army and a small armed group known as Fatah al-Islam. From the first the day, the Lebanese army surrounded the camp and fired in artillery, maintaining this course for months. Most of the residents of the camp were forced to leave with the clothes on their backs within the first three days. As the number of young Lebanese soldiers killed and horribly maimed rose through the battle, Lebanon became awash with patriotism and grief, any questioning of the army taboo.
Something terrible has been done to the residents of Nahr al-Bared, and the Lebanese people are being spared the details. Over the past two weeks, since the camp was partly reopened to a few of its residents, many of us who have been there have been stunned by a powerful reality. Beyond the massive destruction of the homes from three months of bombing, room after room, house after house have been burned. Burned from the inside. Amongst the ashes on the ground, are the insides of what appear to have been car tires. The walls have soot dripping down from what seems clearly to have been something flammable sprayed on them. Rooms, houses, shops, garages — all blackened ruins, yet having had no damage from bombing or battle. They were burned deliberately by people entering and torching them.
How many we do not know; it is too large for a few people to comprehensively assess. But finding an house or business spared from the bombing that has not been torched is very hard indeed.
Why did this happen? Why have the people whose entire life’s work is to be found in ashes on the floor of these burned out homes, not been given any information about this — not a word? Each day new people return to find that this is what has happened to their homes.
It is not just the burning of houses. Cars that residents were ordered to leave behind in the first days of the battle have been smashed up. Mopeds and TVs and all that ordinary people value, also broken up. Fridge after fridge with bullets through them. All of this clearly done from inside the houses, not from any outside battle.
People returning to their homes sit outside alone on the ground. Stunned. When you ask them to bring you into their houses, they tell you, person after person, of how their valuables were stolen. Even where the valuables were well hidden, everything was ransacked and valuables found. Explosives were used to get through locked doors or to open safes. Items that people have had stolen include everything from clothes to cars. That which has not been burned, which was not smashed, which was of value seems to have vanished. Where?
This camp was strictly out of bounds to the Palestinian people. They could not have done this. Who did this and why must surely be investigated before more vital evidence has disappeared. A small amount of this may be attributable to Fatal al-Islam fighters. But there is clear evidence that some elements of the army acted improperly.
On the inside walls of many, many houses, are written slogans. Everything from proud soldiers noting army units, to profoundly racist, offensive slogans against the Palestinian people. Many families have found some of their belongings in nearby houses. Feces are on some mattresses and floors.
Every day that goes by more families return to the camp. Within hours, they have swept up and cleared away ashes and debris, so that they can try to imagine where to begin again. Mattresses with feces are being burned. Journalists are still prohibited from the camp. Cameras are illegal there. Human rights groups have not entered. Every day that goes by, more evidence is lost.
For those of us who lived in nearby Baddawi refugee camp during the battle, this follows months of people from Nahr al-Bared telling stories of torture and abuse at checkpoints, and in the Lebanese Ministry of Defense at Yarsi. It also follows Nahr al Bared residents, who bravely tried to tell the world through nonviolent demonstrations what was happening, being shot dead near Baddawi. The world ignored completely even their deaths.
Amnesty International, the largest human rights organization in the world, was concluding a report on the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon during the past week. Its delegation left Lebanon without seeing Nahr al-Bared — before it left holding a Beirut press conference which was abruptly ended at the first mention of Nahr al-Bared.
The United States government played a key role in this battle, strongly supporting politically and with munitions the Lebanese government’s decision to seek a military solution. The Lebanese offered to Fatah al-Islam the choices to simply surrender or die. The European Union and many Arab countries also clearly supported this approach. The moral and legal imperative to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and not to target civilian communities was not a concern. The Palestinians of Lebanon, the subject of so many crocodile tears from around the world during infamous massacres in the past, once again are without support at the moment when it might actually matter.
What happened in Nahr al-Bared? Why does the world not seem to care?
All images were taken on 14 October 2007, and are published anonymously.
Michael Birmingham is an Irish peace activist who has been mostly based in Lebanon since July 2006. He has formerly worked on human rights and social justice in Ireland and Iraq. This article was originally published in Arabic by Al-Quds al-Arabi and is republished with the author’s permission.