Waging war on the camps, once again

6:30a.m, and the refugee camp is alive with noises. There is electricity this morning and the appliances whir; the television is loud with news of lives no longer, re-occupations of Ramallah and al-Bireh. Kholoude woke me a few minutes ago, and before I opened my eyes, she told me -almost in a whisper- that there had been another Israeli military operation in Palestine. How many, I ask, a phrase in Arabic that is patterned in my mind now: Cam min wahad maat? (“How many dead?”) Eighteen, she answers, Jabalia refugee camp. Gaza. Kholoude turns away, her eyes red. She gets up to make coffee.

The mood in Bourj al Barajneh camp is thick with misery. Bourj is south of Beirut, one square kilometer of dispossessed lives and lost dreams. The thousands here are for the most part the descendents of those who fled massacres and depopulation operations in Palestine in 1947-48. The children of Bourj play in the narrow alleyways of sewage and garbage; the adults make their small homes and try to find work despite impossible labour restrictions. The elders — those who remember the honey, the olives, the villages and cities of Palestine — sit and wait, their 54th year of exile in the camps of Lebanon.

The images from Gaza and the West Bank this morning are familiar to the refugees in Bourj. The tanks have once again entered further into Ramallah, further into the mockery of the ”autonomous”, yet occupied Palestinian areas of the West Bank. I search the images of the city that is now my home, and try to point out the areas as they flicker by on the television screen. The tanks are once again closer to Arafat’s headquarters. Their proximity does little to threaten his compound; Israeli F-16s and Apache helicopters have already pounded the structures within over the past weeks.

From Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza another recurrent tale from the past weeks- the Israeli army entered the camp, killing eighteen and wounding fifty. Jabalia camp is the most populated of the 59 Palestinian camps in the Middle East, with over 100,000 refugees. Kholoude’s daughter Hiba asks me what Jabalia camp is like, and I draw a hasty map of Gaza, colouring in the locations of the eight refugee camps. I tell her about having dinner with Sabri and his family in Jabalia just last week, the cramped houses, the people, the lack of water and electricity. The hospitality, the poverty. Hiba interrupts me laughing; I’ve just described her camp! I smile too, but become sick with worry about Sabri and his four young children in Jabalia.

Insecurity is a common facet to life in the Palestinian refugee camps, be they in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan. The children of Bourj al Barajneh in Lebanon play in alleyways that are almost identical to those of Jabalia camp in Gaza. The walls of Bourj are littered with gunfire holes. The ceiling over my bed here is white but for the dark cement covering up where a shell ripped through during the 1982 Israeli invasion. A younger Kholoude had left the room just moments before.

Down the street is an alleyway that is commonly known as ‘Women’s Walk’. It is here that during the camp sieges in the mid to late 80s, Amal snipers shot and killed the women who attempted, after months without food, to leave the camp for supplies. Desperate still and with starving families, pregnant women then attempted to leave, another fatal miscalculation of the humanity of those holding them captive.

The skies over the camps in Lebanon are mostly quiet now, but the refugees of Bourj al Barajneh are reliving the bombing, shelling, and sieges through the images of the camps in Gaza and the West Bank. The news has flickered back on- the hospitals and funerals of Jabalia are old news now, and reports are now about Amari refugee camp in Ramallah. After a week of bombings, and an attack on a car that killed five children and a mother, Amari refugee camp has been fully occupied, and placed under military curfew.

In Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem, refugee homes are being shelled and destroyed, children and mothers are hiding under staircases and in small hallways. Boys over 14 and men under 50 are rounded up, blindfolded, and are held in detention, hands tied. The Israeli soldiers allow this to be filmed, testament to how little criticism will be brought to bear, to the grave silences about the lives of Palestinians living under occupation, and dying under military attacks in the West Bank and Gaza.

I wonder aloud how much worse it could possibly get in the camps of the West Bank and Gaza. Kholoude lights a cigarette. Her memories of the sieges and massacres of Bourj al Barajneh camp are spilling into the images of the homeland she has never known. She attempts a smile, ignores my question, and asks me if I would like more coffee.

Andrea Becker has been working with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon since 1998, coordinating projects in the camps and working on local advocacy initiatives in Canada. Currently based in Ramallah, Andrea is working on refugee-related development projects and doing regional research on the Palestinian refugee camps.