In June 2006, Dr. Tawfiq Assad stepped out of the seaside Rafiq Hariri airport in Beirut and took a deep breath of the Mediterranean air. It wasn’t home but it was as close to it as he had ever been.
Dr. Assad returned to Lebanon to visit family and friends for what he thought would only be a few weeks’ stay. A Palestinian refugee himself, Dr. Assad’s story is not uncommon. His family was forced from their home in Nazareth during the Nakba in 1948 when the Zionist armies invaded to make way for the Jewish state. As many as 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and many went to seek refuge in Lebanon where they have remained ever since.
Dr. Assad was born and raised in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, located near Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. In 1980, at the age of 20, he headed to Tashkent in the former Soviet Union (now the capital of Uzbekistan) where he studied medicine. After finishing his studies he worked there as an ER doctor for 18 years.
When Dr. Assad returned to Nahr al-Bared in June 2006, he noticed a change from his previous visit six years earlier. “People were not thinking with their minds, only with their emotions. It was a tense situation, and things were more difficult,” he explained, sitting in a small medical office at the Baddawi refugee camp where he now works. “There was less work and people were becoming more desperate and it showed in the way people interacted with each other.”
Soon after, in July 2006, Israel launched its all-out war against Hizballah and Lebanon. Although most of the fighting occurred south of Beirut, Israel bombed locations throughout Lebanon including a Lebanese army outpost on the outskirts of Nahr al-Bared. When the war ended 34 days later, Dr. Assad felt he had to stay and work with his people in Nahr al-Bared. He decided not to return to his wife and son living in Uzbekistan and instead began working at a local medical clinic, the Shifak center.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are in a difficult position. Since they are barred from almost all professions in Lebanon, most are forced to do what they can within the confines of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps. Palestinian doctors are no exception. Dr. Assad, regardless of his training and experience, is not allowed to practice outside any of the camps.
In order to support the medical clinics and staff, the Shifak center charges patients a small fee of about three US dollars per visit. Because of the low cost, many Lebanese would visit the camp to receive medical treatment instead of going to a much more expensive Lebanese healthcare facility. Dr. Assad said that until recently about 80 percent of his patients were Lebanese from outside of Nahr al-Bared.
In November 2006 Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared began to notice the emergence of a new non-Palestinian militia that started to take residence in the camp. This militia was Fatah al-Islam. According to Dr. Assad, “Even before the conflict began between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, Lebanese people were scared to enter Nahr al-Bared and the other camps because of the Lebanese army’s warnings to Lebanese people about the emergence of radical Sunni groups with links to al-Qaeda. We began to lose a lot of patients and a lot of business. Since the war began we haven’t seen any Lebanese patients like we used to.”
When asked about the origins of Fatah al-Islam, people from Nahr al-Bared often say that they do not know where the militia came from. Currently staying in a UN school in Baddawi, Nahr al-Bared resident Abu Mahmoud asked, “Who are these people? Who supports them? It was not us the Palestinians who invited them here.”
It is clear to Palestinians that Fatah al-Islam are not part of the Palestinian resistance but rather a fundamentalist Islamic group who took advantage of the depressed situation in the Palestinian refugee camps to organize their militia. According to Dr. Assad, the Palestinian residents wanted to take action to force out the Fatah al-Islam militants but were careful not to engage in an armed conflict with the group.
In mid-May 2006, things changed for the worse. After a series of events unfolded in Tripoli — including an alleged bank robbery by Fatah al-Islam and the subsequent raid of a building by the Lebanese army — fighting broke out in Nahr al-Bared on 20 May. In the following 72 hours the Lebanese army made a complete blockade of Nahr al-Bared, not allowing anyone in or out as it indiscriminately shelled the camp. During these three days at least 80 Palestinian civilians were killed, and many homes and shops were destroyed or damaged, including most of the camp’s medical clinics.
After the first three days the Lebanese army began to allow people to leave. The staff at the Shifak center had to decide whether they should stay with those remaining in the camp or evacuate like the others. They were aware of the danger of the situation and knew it would probably only get worse. They agreed that at least one doctor should stay to treat those who were unable to evacuate while the rest would tend to the refugees fleeing the camp. With his nearly two decades of emergency room experience Dr. Assad volunteered to stay. A young nurse, Milad Salamih, who had only received training and had yet to put his skills into practice, also chose to stay and assist Dr. Assad.
“During the time I stayed in Nahr al-Bared things were extremely difficult,” said Dr. Assad as his gaze dropped down to his desk. “There was no water, little food and no electricity. I worked by candlelight operating on the sick and injured. There were 400 people who took refuge in the small three-room bomb shelter underneath the clinic and over a hundred requiring treatment every day. Those coming in for treatment varied from injuries from the shelling, to diarrhea, vomiting and extreme stress. UNRWA [the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees] doctors completely abandoned the camp as soon as the bombings began and there was little external aid or equipment coming in to help with the sick. Day and night we worked, performing every kind of treatment imaginable. I rarely slept at all during that one month.”
Dr. Assad ended up staying in Nahr al-Bared from 20 May until 18 June when he was sure that almost all of the Palestinians had escaped the fighting. Nurse Salamih left a couple of days earlier, on 14 June.
Although Salamih stayed to assist Dr. Assad with medical emergencies, the two men rarely worked side by side. Instead they worked in opposite ends of the camp in order to cover more ground. Dr. Assad remained in the Shifak center while Salamih worked out of his house on the other side of the camp.
Nurse Salamih worked with little equipment, carrying only the most vital pieces of medical tools with him everywhere he went. He worked mostly alone, and explained that Red Cross ambulances were only allowed to come and pick people up when the Lebanese army allowed them to enter the camp: “Many people died because they lost too much blood waiting for the ambulances to arrive and take them to the hospital.”
“Why are we paying the price for this war? Why are we forced to leave our homes when this war is between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam?” Salamih asked while sitting in the Baddawi refugee camp medical clinic where he and Dr. Assad now volunteer treating patients from Nahr al-Bared and Badawwi. Since the fighting began on 20 May, Dr. Assad, like most medical staff, has worked endlessly without pay. Sitting in a waiting room full of patients, Dr. Assad said, “I don’t know how much longer I can continue like this. I have a family like everyone else here. And all of us left Nahr al-Bared with nothing. Even this shirt is the same one I wore when I left Nahr al-Bared almost two months ago.”
The Palestinians of Nahr al-Bared continue to pay the price for a conflict not of their making. Over 35,000 people have been displaced by the violence at Nahr al-Bared since May, forced to leave behind everything that they own. Of those, around 25,000 have temporarily settled in the Baddawi refugee camp, 10 kilometers away from Nahr al-Bared. They have set up residence in the schools, community centers and peoples’ homes, sleeping on mats and carpets. The influx of people into Baddawi, whose population is normally around 16,000, has put a strain on the camp’s infrastructure, making it hard for people to cope with an already difficult situation.
“This is a new Nakba,” said Dr. Assad. “I worry what will happen to my people, and especially what will happen to the children when September arrives and there is no school to go to.” At one UN school in Baddawi there are families sleeping in every room. This means that in only one month both children from Baddawi and Nahr al-Bared will not have a space to begin their studies for the school year. Dr. Assad added, “The people from Nahr al-Bared need to know what their future will be.”
When asked what should be done, Dr. Assad responded that “the situation is out of our hands. The international community must put pressure on the Lebanese government and the PLO to help the people return to their homes. This must be done quickly because the more time passes the easier it will be to forget about these people.”
Dr. Assad continued to say that the Lebanese government, the Arab states and the PLO have done very little to help the refugees. He explained that Saudi Arabia donated two million Lebanese pounds ($1,333 US) per family from Nahr al-Bared in an attempt to help, while the PLO gave half a million Lebanese pounds ($333 US) per injured civilian. But this money will have little effect. Dr. Assad estimates is that there are at least 250 people who will require long-term care, so a one-time payout is not the solution. Many refugees from Nahr al-Bared say that the money they were given has already been spent on basic necessities like food, clothing, mattresses and diapers. There have also been no concrete efforts to help the refugees of Nahr al-Bared return to the camp to rebuild their shattered lives.
Dr. Assad said that he plans on staying in Baddawi until he sees what will become of the situation. “I have a wife and son in Uzbekistan, but I have thousands of brothers and sisters who need me here. The struggle for my people is more important than my personal happiness or comfort.” He paused and lit a cigarette before adding, “Our children are just like their children. I hope that people outside of the refugee camps realize this. Every child is the same and deserves to live a normal life. We are no exception.”
Young Palestinians in Baddawi from Nahr al-Bared have started a campaign called Raji’in or “We will return.” They have staged demonstrations, sit-ins, vigils and strikes in an attempt to bring attention to the situation. When asked where they will return to, the group responded, “First we will go back to Nahr al-Bared and then back to Palestine.”
In the meantime, like all those who left Nahr al-Bared, Dr. Assad waits. He looks around the Baddawi medical clinic before saying, “The Palestinian people are courageous and strong. This is why we continue to struggle against this destiny as refugees. Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army have just made us refugees again.”
Dina Awad is a Palestinian born in Lebanon and currently residing in Toronto, Canada. She recently graduated from McGill University.
Matthew Cassel is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada.