A Visit to Shatila

As much as I may tell you about Shatila, I lack the ability to put in words what I saw and felt the day I visited that place. The name “Shatila” has lived in my consciousness as a Palestinian, since 1982, when along with “Sabra,” it came to represent unspeakable evil, the place where up to two thousand Palestinians were massacred by far-right Lebanese militias in 1982, as the Israeli army watched and covered them from positions outside the camp. For a few days in 1982, the world reeled in horror at what was done to the Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. Then they forgot. Israel escaped any consequences or punishment, and some of the Israeli officials found responsible by the official commission of enquiry even serve today in Ehud Barak’s government, while Ariel Sharon, the war-criminal-in-chief is the leader of Israel’s official opposition and would-be prime minister.

I think that Palestinians around the world never forgot Sabra and Shatila, but our lives went on. For most of us the camps remained symbols, rather than places, and if we remembered anyone it was the dead, not the living. Today, Sabra has been cleared away, and of the two only Shatila remains. Can any of us imagine what it means for “life to go on” in the very place where the massacre happened?

A small group of us went to Shatila one morning in late June. Accompanied by M., a young Lebanese woman who volunteers at the camp, we set out from central Beirut by taxi towards the southern suburbs where Shatila is located. We arrive at a busy, crowded market. On both sides of the street are decrepit buildings or piles of garbage (which the Lebanese authorities do not collect) on top of piles of rubble. Underfoot the ground is damp with what smelled like sewage. Everywhere around us the street is crowded with people buying and selling vegetables and cheap household goods. One store sells refurbished television sets most of which looked like they were of 1970s vintage.

A low wall behind a stall teaming with tomatoes separates the crowded market from a vacant lot. Vacant except for piles of rotten garbage and a small corrugated metal shack. This site, we are told, is the mass grave where victims of the 1982 massacre are buried. There is no marker, or memorial, just the piles of garbage. Walking further down the main street was the same: garbage and ramshackle cinder block buildings. I usually find that the words flow to me easily when I want to describe something I have seen. In this case I find they do not. Even if I could find the right adjectives to describe the physical environment, the smell, the sense of entering another world, it is the emotions of inner shock that elude description. How could people be left to live in a situation like this?

Shatila is one of the thirteen Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. According to UNRWA, there are 375,218 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, of whom 209,225 live in refugee camps. Shatila has a total of sixteen thousand residents, but unlike the larger Palestinian camps in southern Lebanon, it contains a mix of people. Only six thousand of the residents are Palestinian according to the residents we spoke to, mostly hailing from northern Palestine—the Galilee, the cities of Safad and Haifa and their environs. The rest are Syrian immigrant laborers, poor and internally displaced Lebanese, and an assortment of others. Shatila’s Palestinian residents believe that Lebanon deliberately allowed non-Palestinians to rent homes in the camp in order to dilute Palestinians and diminish their sense of community. At the same time, Palestinians in the camp are increasingly afraid of political activity, because they feel they are being watched from all directions.

At a certain point we turned off the market street into a narrow alley which took us to a doorway marked “Beit Atfal al-Sumoud.” This is a small NGO which works in the camp to provide care and services to some of the many children who lost their parents in the 1982 massacre and the subsequent “War of the Camps,” when the Syrian-backed Shia group Amal, besieged several Palestinian camps in the mid 1980s. The place was typical of the small NGO’s I have seen in refugee camps: small, but neat and tidy with pictures and posters to lighten up the plain walls. We met with the adults who work at the center, and who have themselves witnessed unimaginable suffering and loss.

It was here that Samar, Muhammad Azouka and Mahmoud, three of the young people who live in the camp had come to meet us. Both of Samar’s parents were killed, and she, now nearly 15 years old, lives with her grandparents. Mahmoud and Muhammad both lost their fathers. The boys are 14, but look as though they are eight, due to the poor nutrition they receive. But if their bodies are stunted by life in the camp, the spirits and the outward strength all three showed us that day were enormous. Life for them is a daily struggle, but do not imagine sad people who sit silently in the corner. The children we met had a hard won confidence and an effusive warmth that consoled and strengthened me that day in a way that I wish I could have done for them.

Though the conditions the children live under in the camp, and the experiences they have had, are indescribably difficult, they do not invite pity nor is that the emotion they generate. Pity is something you feel for someone who is weaker, or subordinate, not towards someone who has struggled and overcome more than you. We were there that day to listen and learn, and perhaps to imagine for a microsecond what it would have been like if fate had decreed that we should have been the ones who were born into the camp, and the children the strangers with cameras and notepads who had come to meet us.

We sat together for an hour in the library that the children had themselves established, after doing a book drive at the AUB (American University of Beirut). We looked at photos I had carried from Dheisheh refugee camp in occupied Palestine, taken the day the children of Shatila met at the barbed wire with a group from Dheisheh (since there is no direct mail between Palestine and Lebanon, travelers are one of the few means to send letters and photos).

“Look,” said Mahmoud, pointing at a photo of himself stretching through the fence, “this is me with one foot in Palestine and one foot in Lebanon.”
“How did you feel?” one of us asked.
“Like part of me was free and part of me in a prison.”

Samar talked about how the meeting with the Dheisheh children had changed her life and her views: “We always thought that anyone who was lucky enough to live in Palestine was living on top of the world. But then we learned that so many Palestinians there live in refugee camps like us.” The children had exchanged small mementos and snacks through the barbed wire. Samar said, “we even kept the sweet wrappers, because we wanted to remember everything about that day.” The children went to the border fence at Dhaira twice since the defeat of the Israeli army in the south of Lebanon. The hardest thing, Samar said, was when the children parted the last time and they did not know if they would see each other again, amid fears that both the Israeli and Lebanese authorities would block access to the border area. The two groups of children are keeping in touch by email and gave one of our party, who was on her way to Dheisheh, a package of letters to be delivered to the children there.

Samar read from a poem called “Palestine as imagined by Shatila Children” collectively written. For the young people of Shatila, Palestine, a place they have seen only briefly through the border fence, represents hope that they will escape from the deliberate privations imposed on them. It is the hope that the refugee camp is not a sentence of life without parole for children whose only crime is to be born Palestinian. And when among wishes for “parents who don’t die,” “good schools,” and the chance to choose a career free of restrictions, they imagine “a sea of chocolate,” in Palestine, you are reminded that these are children who still have the dreams of children, even if the adult world has done its best to extinguish them. (Some of the children’s work was recently published in the The Journal of Palestine Studies (see “Through Children’s Eyes: Children’s Rights in Shatila Camp”. Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Autumn 1999, Issue 113—Below I have quoted from some of the pieces that were presented at an exhibition at the American Community School in Beirut on June 30, 2000).

After our meeting at the library the children took us on a tour of the camp. They carefully explained what life is like in alleys so narrow that sometimes one must pass through them sideways. Muhammad asked me “What is Dheisheh like? Are the alleys as narrow as ours? Is there room to play?” In Shatila there is no room to play—the spaces between houses are like a labyrinth, and whatever land is vacant is already occupied by rotting garbage.

Shatila is a place where the living and the dead exist together. Samar showed us the mosque, where the dead were buried during the long months when the camp was besieged and no bodies could be taken out to the cemetery. Her father and sister are buried here. We looked in through the window at row after row of graves decorated with dried flowers.

Muhammad pointed above at the cinder block high-rises—four, five and six stories high—to cram as many people as possible into the camp, and the impossible tangles of wires carrying precarious supplies of electricity into people’s homes.

We reached the edge of the camp. Before us lay an area of rubble and garbage, the size of several city blocks and as high as a man. Still standing were two or three apartment buildings, the only remnants of a neighborhood flattened by Israeli bombardment in the 1982 invasion. The standing buildings looked for all the world as if they had been bombed yesterday. The corners of the floors had collapsed onto each other accordion style and there were no windows. But on closer inspection, the buildings were fully inhabited: laundry hung across the huge gaps where walls used to be. The elements of people’s lives, a table, chairs or bedding were visible, as if the walls had been peeled away just so we could see inside. Muhammad explained that the area had once been part of the camp, but the Lebanese authorities had prohibited any rebuilding. The people living in the buildings now are mostly Syrians. Rising behind the camp, we could see the upper reaches and huge lighting pylons of Beirut’s gleaming new Cite Sportive stadium. Muhammad pointed at the stadium, and then the rubble. “This area is part of the project.” They plan to build a highway through here.”

As we walked through another main street, we caught glimpses into dark, filthy, gloomy apartment buildings without electricity and scarcely penetrated by natural light. It is in such buildings, perhaps ten or 15 to a room that Palestinians who survived the massacre at the former Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in 1976, now live. The buildings are not officially recognized by UNRWA as part of the refugee camp, hence their residents—all desperately poor—do not receive assistance from the agency. Not far away the displaced survivors of Sabra live in similar conditions.

From here we boarded taxis back to Beirut, and back to a world in which Shatila’s reality rarely intrudes.

The next time we saw Samar, Muhammad and Mahmoud was a few days later at the American Community School on Beirut’s seafront. We also met many more of the children of Shatila, all from a group who meet regularly at Beit Atfal al-Sumoud, and with M.. Bursting with pride and exhilaration, the children were showing visitors around an exhibition of photographs and writing that they had created, called “The Right to Dream.” It was the first such event outside the camp. The happiness of the whole group and sense of empowerment was amply embodied by Farah, the young woman featured in Mai Masri’s recent documentary, “Children of Shatila.” Farah welcomed all the guests, explaining how hard the children had worked and how much it meant to show to the world what their life is like and concluded her address with an energetic: “We love you and we hope you love us too!”

It was a real privilege to be at that exhibition that day. Once again, I felt that I was a student, and these young people were teachers. How many times was I taken by the hand, so I could be shown a photograph and told the story behind it? I’ll tell you about one: Osama, 16, showed me a photograph he had taken of the street market we had seen at Shatila a few days before. It seemed perfectly ordinary until Osama explained what it meant. “You see the street sellers? Once they were all Palestinians, but now almost all the jobs have been taken by Syrians.” The Syrians have several advantages over Palestinians that are allowing them to take over jobs in the very few sectors (all low-skilled and low-paid) in which Palestinians are permitted to work. As peddlers, Syrians can bring cheap goods across the border from Syria something that Palestinians, who can travel only with great difficulty cannot possibly do. As laborers and builders, Syrians will take 5,000 Lebanese Lira (three dollars) for a day’s work, for a job a Palestinian cannot do for less than 20,000 (twelve dollars).

Why can’t Palestinians “compete”? Syrian men come mostly as individuals, and so do not have to pay to house and feed a whole family. They can live ten or twenty to a room in boarding houses. Because of the lower cost of living in Syria, and the exchange rate with the Syrian Pound, they can still remit some money to their families back home to live on, whereas Palestinians must use their money in much more expensive Lebanon. Osama explained that young people like him, banned from setting their sights on being doctors or engineers, could at least have hoped to become carpenters or work in other skilled trades. Today he fears that he cannot even hope for that. Osama and all the children had passed their exams the day before the exhibition, adding to the celebratory feeling. But for Osama, the joy was edged with the fear that with all economic roads closed to Palestinians, success in school was preparing him for a career as a garbage collector. The diminishing expectations of the children, the poor quality of the school at the camp (where children are taught in classes of up to 50, are routinely insulted and sometimes beaten), combined with economic pressures, are wearing thin the ability and willingness of some of the children to stay in school.

In addition to photos, some of the children’s writing was presented at the exhibition and it spoke more eloquently about the reality of their life than any newspaper story, or account written by someone from outside.

In a piece called “I Want to Play Not Work,” Muhammad Daood (with Mona Zaaroura) wrote about his experience as a working child:

“….When I work in Shatila I don’t feel miserable and I don’t curse my life, because all children work here and child labor is not something strange. But it was different when I worked during the summer on a building site in the town of Shmays, near Shahim, and saw the way the children play and run there, while I was carrying buckets of cement and polishing zinc, which makes me short of breath. Then I started asking myself why I wasn’t playing and running in the fields the way those other children were. Why did I go from school to work? Why do I have to work to live? I know why: because I come from the camp, because I’m a Palestinian refugee.”

While economic pressure pushes young boys out of school and into the labor force, the effect on young girls is that they are often forced into early marriages. Writing of her own experience in a piece called, “I’m a Child but I was Engaged,” Rana Kassem, (with Rana Al-Hassan, and Suzanne Abd El Hadi), called the prospect of marriage a “nightmare,” from which she only narrowly escaped when she was just thirteen:

“…One day I went on a trip with Bayt Atfal Assoumoud and I caught the eye of a man I didn’t know. So he asked about me, was introduced to the household and asked for my hand in marriage. My mother agreed to the match without asking for my opinion. Because of my father’s death and our poor living conditions, my mother’s opinion was all that mattered. She insisted on my getting engaged and I gave in. The engagement period was one of the cruelest periods of my life. They would sometimes call me while I was playing with my friends because the man had come to visit us and I was supposed to receive him. I used to be very afraid of him and I hated him. Because of this fear I often got sick: every time I saw him, I’d have a fever and start crying. I imagined him as the monster who scares children. Since I was always sick, I managed to rid myself of the nightmare…”

Wissam al-Ahmad (with Mirvat Issa) wrote how her brother died of asthma because adequate treatment and medications were not available, an occurrence common in the camps:

“…My brother died like most refugees in the camp, from minor illnesses that they get because of living conditions in the camp: pollution due to the mixing of running water with sewage, or humidity, or the stench of garbage, or poverty and malnutrition. Should we die simply because we are Palestinians without land, and because we are displaced people without a nationality?…”

Though they express their hopes and dreams clearly, the children of Shatila can scarcely escape the feeling that the world is closing in on them. In “Don’t I have the right to Dream?”, written by the whole group, they speak with one voice:

But I’m afraid my dreams will hit up against the walls of the camp.
Or that they will get lost among the crooked alleyways, or that they will be polluted by the garbage

I’m afraid when I dream that my dreams will hit up against my reality, my being a Palestinian refugee deprived of my rights.

And I ask myself, am I really denied the right to dream?
And I ask the world, don’t I have the right to dream?”

The treatment of the Palestinians is Lebanon’s great shame and taboo, one it needs to come to terms with at this moment when the liberation of its south has inspired the whole Middle East. Palestinians in Lebanon have fewer rights than in any other country in the world, including occupied Palestine. They are banned from doing all but the most menial work. Their freedom to travel is restricted, and in most of the larger camps, construction and even repair of houses is strictly prohibited by the Lebanese authorities, who provide almost no services to them. Refugee families barely survive, often with meager rations from UNRWA providing the only safety net. Health care is rudimentary, and, the children explained, it is not uncommon for the sick to die at the doors of Lebanese hospitals where they are refused treatment for ailments that UNRWA clinics are not equipped to handle.

A tiny minority of mostly Christian Palestinians did receive Lebanese citizenship in the forties and fifties. This was granted by Lebanon’s Christian-led governments anxious to take advantage of them to boost its sectarian numbers. In the same way that Christian Palestinians were easily integrated to benefit Lebanon’s political balance in former times, the Palestinians today, the vast majority of them Sunni Muslims, are rejected because there is no place for them in Lebanon’s complex sectarian politics.

The most surprising thing to me about Lebanon was the general sense of antipathy towards Palestinians. This was not universal, but it was widespread and undeniable, and at times made me uncomfortable or unsure about how to identify myself if asked where I was from. At one extreme I heard from a Lebanese acquaintance (a Muslim) the old Zionist saw that the Palestinians had mostly sold their land to the Jews and left their country voluntarily. I heard this from only one person, but to hear it at all was quite shocking. Two well-integrated and well-to-do Palestinian Christian women acknowledged that life in the camps must be hard, but simply denied that the Palestinians there were not allowed to work or receive passports. They asserted too that only a minority of Lebanon’s Palestinians even lived in camps. Back in Amman, I talked to friends who were born or lived in Lebanon, who said it is quite common for “integrated” Palestinians to hide their identity. One woman who was born in Lebanon and moved back there three years ago after a long absence told me, “I don’t advertise that I am Palestinian. I have to get along with my work. When I get to know someone really well I might tell them, but sometimes my accent gives it away.”

Some of the Lebanese I talked to suggested that the appalling conditions imposed on the Palestinians are as much for their own good as for the good of Lebanon, and as much the Palestinians’ own fault as they are not the fault of Lebanon. Commonly offered arguments that granting civil rights to Palestinians would diminish the political urgency of their return home and even their own desire to do so are patent nonsense. Jordan’s granting of rights to Palestinians (i.e. citizenship, passports, the right to vote, and the right to work, invest, build etc.) has not diminished the attachment of Palestinians—especially those in refugee camps—to their rights in Palestine, nor has emigration and dispersal to Europe and the United States. Lebanon may argue that it has the right not to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees, and indeed it is not required to do so. But in no imaginable case does any political expediency justify denying basic human, civil and social rights to hundreds of thousands of people.

The Palestinians seem to have become all-purpose scapegoats for Lebanon’s problems, including its own civil war. It is not uncommon to hear claims that the Palestinians ‘started the war.’ You might even go unchallenged if you suggested that Palestinians came to Lebanon simply to inconvenience the Lebanese rather than because they were forced out of their country by a colonial occupier who still refuses to let them go back home. Though I cannot claim to have interviewed a scientific sample of Lebanese, it was clear that the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness (however hard won) that many Lebanese were prepared to show to other Lebanese for their respective roles—however awful—in the civil war, was largely unavailable to Palestinians. While it is possible to find well-educated and progressive Lebanese individuals who oppose the country’s treatment of Palestinians, rejection of the Palestinians seems to be one of the keystones holding together Lebanon’s shaky post war “consensus.”

I am able to understand that many Lebanese resent that at a certain point the PLO became a “state within a state” and its military elements were not subject to any control by the Lebanese state. There is no doubt that the PLO could and should have conducted itself differently during its time in Lebanon, and that Yasir Arafat largely failed to learn the lessons of his experience in Jordan in the late 1960s and committed all the same errors which culminated in the disastrous conflict with the Jordanian government in 1970. But regardless of what the PLO did when it was in Lebanon, it is the children of Shatila and the other camps, not Arafat, who are today paying the price for events that occurred before they were born. And at least when the PLO was in Lebanon, there was a strong network of PLO-provided social and health services which have now completely collapsed.

The political marginalization that Palestinians experience in Lebanon is combined with spiraling social marginalization. In addition to being banned from most professions, the children in the camps told us how as camp dwellers they feel like pariahs. The camps are seen by people outside as being dens for criminals and thieves who are believed to shelter there from the Lebanese authorities, since most of the camps, still controlled by vestigial but armed Palestinian factions, are no-go areas for the Lebanese police and army. Hence, all people from the camps are seen as potential criminals. The children say they are rarely visited, and are most hurt that Palestinians living outside the camp, even those in Lebanon have forgotten they exist. So isolation, hopelessness and mutual hostility between people inside and outside the camps grows.

I would have come away from Lebanon feeling a profound sense of alienation and disappointment at the situation of the Palestinians were it not for M., the young Lebanese woman who volunteers with the children at Shatila spending time with them every day, arranging trips outside the camp, single-handedly helping thirty of them prepare and study to successfully pass their exams, and constantly encouraging them to believe in and work for a future better than the childhood they have had. Her personal commitment to the children and young people despite the lack of support she has got from her community, and the children’s visible commitment to her, serve as a powerful example of people’s ability to overcome divisions imposed on them.

This relationship between M. and the children of Shatila is one thing which gives me hope that the division between Palestinians and Lebanese in Lebanon can be overcome, though it is clear that this will not happen without active efforts for reconciliation (presently almost non-existent) and the granting of basic rights to the Palestinians. The other is that there is nothing in my personal experience, in the Arab American community, particularly among activists and the younger generation, that reflects such a division outside Lebanon. On the contrary, some of the people I know who have been most active in support of Palestinian rights in recent years in the United States (particularly the right of return), working alongside Palestinian activists, are Lebanese and Lebanese-Americans. Before going to Lebanon, I don’t think it would even have occurred to me to think about that or to consider it anything other than normal, as indeed was Palestinian solidarity with Lebanon in its struggle against Israeli occupation. I do not know if the difference in my experience in the United States is a generational effect or because as communities in exile and diaspora we focus more on what we have in common. Whatever the reason, after visiting Lebanon, I am more keenly aware of the importance of building and nurturing this kind of solidarity.

I don’t think it is possible to go to Shatila and meet the children there and not come away deeply affected, and I would even go as far as to say changed. The children’s message was clear: they feel desperately isolated and want contact with people outside, especially Palestinians. I do believe now that every Palestinian who has the means and the freedom to travel should go to a refugee camp. This includes Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan and even Palestine, many of whom who have lived next door to the camps all their lives, but have never ventured into them. There is no excuse for this. If there are reasons to reproach Lebanon for its treatment of the Palestinians, Palestinians in the diaspora may just as much reproach themselves for how we have allowed the refugees in Lebanon to slip into an abyss.

But for those who go, I believe there are some duties that have to be taken seriously. The first is to listen to the lives and the experiences; the second is to make a commitment. Do not go unless you are prepared to make a commitment. This may be as modest as staying in touch with young people in the camp, and being a friend who will listen—email and letters provide us with an easy way to do that when we can’t be there. It may be to go and spend a few weeks or months to teach and learn with people in the camp, or it may be much greater, for example putting some of the children through school and college, or supporting health care. Every person—Palestinian and other—knows what his or her means and abilities are. In addition to finding a way to make a direct connection with people in the camp, every person can and must support the campaign for the right of return.

I did not think my conviction that implementation of the right of return and restitution is the basis for justice in Palestine could be stronger. Then I met the children of Shatila.