I don’t know where to begin. After spending two days in Chatila Refugee Camp, and a day in Beddawi, I find myself at a loss for words. How do I describe the conditions these Palestinian refugees are being subjected to when I never even conceived of the possibility of such unspeakable conditions. Again, I don’t know where to begin. But I will try my best. I will try because all of the refugees we interviewed in our first day at Beddawi beseeched us to let the world know how their situation has quickly deteriorated in a matter of days.
As we drove into Beddawi, with four other cars also carrying aid to Nahr al-Bared refugees, I tried to take in the scene before me. The narrow streets were jam-packed with cars and swarming with people. We drove to the Ghassan Kanafani kindergarten where we were to meet with some people who would help us navigate through the camp and distribute the aid we had brought with us. There were six journalists who had accompanied us to the camp and so I went with them to translate. Kamal Kamar, a very pleasant and helpful man, was our guide. He took us to the UNRWA school where many of the displaced refugees are sleeping. (Others who have relatives in the camp sleep with them or refugees that live in Beddaoui welcome them in their homes.)
As we entered the school, I was shocked at the level of noise in the school. I had to put my hands to my ears because I wasn’t expecting so much noise in the narrow hallways. But I guess this is to be expected from a building that is housing such an enormous amount of people. As we walked into the first room, there were about 30 refugees sitting around, most of them on the floor and a few others on chairs. Hana, who is a Finnish reporter, and I, asked if we could take pictures. One man in his thirties remarked that that’s all the Palestinian people are good for. His statement shook me a little because it really rings true. The Palestinians have suffered so much and all one can do is document their suffering. Every time the situation of some Palestinians gets a little better, a new situation arises that forces them to leave their homes yet again. And all one can try to do for them is to take pictures and expose their suffering and disseminate it in mainstream media outlets and hopefully, mobilize some people to take action against the injustices committed against them. This is what I hope to do with this piece. And I sincerely hope that whoever reads this will at least act in some way to help publicize what is happening to these refugees and work to ease their suffering.
Our interview in this room started with two women, but by the end of the interview, there were about fifteen more refugees who had joined our group. Everyone had something to say and wanted their voice heard. A woman, probably in her fifties, was telling us how hard it was to leave her home in Nahr al-Bared. She said she felt like she was going through what her mom was forced to endure when she was displaced from her home in Palestine. All they want, she said, is to live in “safety, freedom, and serenity.” They were happy just living in their home. Another man added that he keeps being displaced from his home thinking that he will be able to go back. First he had to leave Chatila, and now he had to leave Nahr al-Bared to come to Beddawi, and now he wonders if he’ll be able to go back home — that is if his home is still standing.
And that’s another thing. All the refugees were telling us how their homes had either been completely or partially destroyed. What this means is that many people’s identity cards are buried under the debris and the refugees can’t leave the camp and are forced to stay in a war zone. Of course, women and children have a much easier time of leaving the camp without these identity cards than men. But in the end, the refugees from Nahr al-Bared said, that it is the civilians who are taking the brunt of the shelling. Fateh al-Islam militants are still alive and kicking — actually, alive and shooting. Unfortunately, this is what always happens in cases where such indiscriminate weapons are used. Most of the people who die are the civilians who are considered collateral damage. But this is not acceptable. The Palestinians caught in the middle between the violence erupting between the army and the militants should not have to pay with their lives and the lives of their children. They are paying with their lives as did those that died in the Qana Massacre of last summer’s war. But at least then, we heard the cry of alarm from the international community. Why can’t I hear that cry today? Do the Palestinians need to endure any more suffering than they have been since 1948? Why does everyone always fight their own fight and involve the Palestinians? As one of the refugees put it: “We are good people. We don’t want to fight anyone. We just want to live in our homes and feel safe.”
Suha Hasan Ismail, a 12-year-old refugee from Nahr al-Bared, put it so eloquently in her poem (translated from Arabic):
I woke up and how I wish I hadn’t.
It was 4 am and I was deep in sleep, frolicking amongst the trees.
But my dream was interrupted by the explosion.
They won’t let me be at peace, even in my dreams.
Nadine Kotob is a student at the American University of Beirut