By: Giulia El-Dardiry

Giulia El-Dardiry listens to voices from Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut

Bourj Al-Barajneh and Shatila refugee camps are home to approximately 35,000 Palestinian refugees, expelled from Palestine in 1948 by Zionist forces. These camps are situated close to Shia suburbs in southern Beirut that have been heavily bombarded by Israeli jets since the beginning of this latest Israeli aggression against Lebanon. While the Shia suburbs have been largely emptied of their residents who have found refuge in other parts of the country or in shelters in Beirut, many of the Palestinian refugees have no choice but to remain in the camps. I remember a year ago peering into Umm Mohamed’s kitchen in Bourj Al-Barajneh refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut. Below the cupboards where gigantic nylon bags filled with rice, lentils and other staple foods. Fifteen years after the civil war ended. I laughed at her caution and said that such stocking of food was unnecessary. She looked at me and said: ‘In this country, you never know.’ She turned around and went into her small living room and lifted the seat from the couch revealing a storage space below. They were filled with clean clothes and an outrageous quantity of underwear. ‘Whatever for?’ I exclaimed. ‘Because there is nothing worse, nothing more uncomfortable, nothing more humiliating and undignified for a human being, than to wear dirty soiled clothes. It is what happened during the war,” she replied. I laughed again at what I thought were an old woman’s whimsical ways and exaggerated worries. How wrong I was to laugh. It has been 12 days now that Israel has rained destruction on Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut. And I thank God every day that Umm Mohamed — in all her wisdom — stored food and clean clothing for her family stuck now in the middle of rubble and ruins awaiting an even more uncertain and precarious future.

Despite their worries, people in the camps have taken the time to write what they have witnessed, how they feel and what they expect of the future. These are their words and their stories.

An illegitimate colonisation “I have to thank all of you for your words and feelings for us in Lebanon; more days of blood and destruction, more days of fright and pain, more days of suffering. I am sorry for all those poor Lebanese who lost everything, I am sorry for what has happened to Lebanon as a country as a consequence of Israel’s war crimes, I am sorry for the south Lebanon villages and cities, I am sorry for the southern suburbs of Beirut. “I don’t know if you are watching the news, or if the television is even showing the reality of what is going on in Lebanon. Buildings are completely destroyed to the ground, people just want to find a way to escape from Lebanon, or at least, to get away from the bombarded areas. People are sleeping in the streets or parks — it is only the lucky one who finds a place in a school or in a shelter under a building. Pictures of children show how they were killed in a car or small bus, running in a street trying to seek safety, escaping from death without knowing that the Israeli killing machine is waiting for them everywhere they go. It’s unbearable to see Israel threatening and destroyed people’s lives and homes, while no one is trying to stop it. “War should be between two legitimate forces. But this war is lead by war criminals; it’s not an honourable thing to kill people, destroy roads, buildings, and bridges, to cut off the electricity or the water sources. It’s not brave to use all this force against those who have none. “The camps have not been attacked yet, but the smell of death, the sound of rockets, jets and ships are affecting the camps’ residents and make them afraid. They are afraid that they will be hit in their homes like carton boxes. Half of Shatila has left. Most of those who left are Syrians and Lebanese who returned to their places of origin. “It’s evident that this war was planned. The decision is clear: destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure, roads, power stations, and bridges, create divisions among the Lebanese people and force Hizbullah to comply with UN Resolution 1559, ensure that Lebanon is no longer influenced by Syria or Iran; and overlook the Palestinian cause. “This colonisation will never succeed. Lebanon will need more than twenty years to recover from this war. But what the Israelis don’t understand is that with every resistance they defeat, a new force is born — stronger and more fundamentalist that its predecessor. In the 1960s, the PLO came into existence, and in 1982 the Israelis forced them out of Beirut. But Hizbullah was then established, and later Hamas, and then came the Intifada in Palestine. “It’s easy for the strong to hit the weak. But it is crazy to think that the children of the weak will accept the humiliation and not take revenge, and obtain their rights in the very same way. “The NGOs are now thinking about how to get people blankets, mattresses, food kits, etc. Many associations are busy writing proposals to donors for financial support. Some political organisations started distributing humanitarian aid. But this is not enough. Especially when donors come to us with songs of development, human rights, democracy, diplomacy, and peace, the right to respect, justice, and happiness. “I am calling on all students and social workers, human rights activists, all those peace groups and environment defenders, all those against the aggression and exploitation, against the killing and deprivation, to raise their voices as one. We should protect those who have not yet died. Not only in Lebanon and Palestine, but everywhere. We are not humanitarians simply by crying, expressing sympathy, or giving financial support to the poor. We must be representatives of truth and justice.” Abu Mujahed Director, Children and Youth Centre Shatila refugee camp, 17 July 2006 A humanitarian crisis “I would like to start with the situation here in Beirut. War has prevailed everywhere and destruction has become our daily bread. “Bourj Al Barajneh camp is caught in the middle of the fire and bombardment, isolated from the surrounding areas, leaving the residents to suffer the tension of war and the scarcity of life, as most of the Lebanese flee their home to take refuge in other parts of Beirut. The camp residents, on the other hand, have no other option but to stay in the camp. “I am the director of a local NGO, and immediately the first idea that came to my mind was how to aid my people in the camp and provide them with prompt assistance. Given that the Palestinians were already living under severe conditions prior to this aggression, I wondered how they would cope. On 15 July I visited the camp in search of an answer. I found that people had decided to stay in the camp because they had nowhere else to go — because they had no money and because of a shortage of housing. And most especially — they do not wish to relive the experience of being refugees for a second time, telling me, ‘We are already refugees, do we need to be refugees again?’ “Today, 18 July I went to the camp again. I cannot describe the horrific trip. My car was the only moving vehicle amidst the deep silence and destruction. The last two kilometres to the camps give the impression of being haunted by ghosts. No one enters the area — it is extremely dangerous, with the bombed airport on one side and the now totally destroyed Shia suburbs on the other. It is a scene of total devastation, with buildings and roads completely destroyed. I was shocked and overwhelmed.

“We are facing a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale and we call on the international community to stop Israel’s total destruction of Lebanon and the killing of innocent civilians. We are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and we ask all good people in the world to help us.

“A little aid makes difference. “A beam of light gives hope to people in spite darkness.” Olfat Mahmoud Director, Women’s Humanitarian Organisation (WHO) Bourj Al-Barajneh refugee camp, 19 July 2006 Life amongst destruction “In the camp we have had a relatively calm night. I stayed up a little bit late because I was watching Nasrallah’s interview on Al-Jazeera, which ended at around 2 am. He essentially said that the only option left for the Israelis is a ground invasion. Since Safaa came with her family, I am sleeping in my cousin’s empty house, as he and his family moved down to the ground floor with the rest of his family. That’s the case in almost in all the homes — everyone is sleeping on the ground floors. My mother and sisters, as well as all the kids from upstairs sleep in our living room. In these kinds of situations, spaces seem to acquire a greater capacity than would seem possible; it defies all laws of space. “The days since this military operations started have been heavy and long. There is nothing new in this for the older generations who went through calamities and many wars before, but it’s something completely different for the post-war generation — it’s hard for them to grasp and they are already traumatised. “The F-16s that are bombing the neighbourhood of Haret Hreik as well as other areas close to the camp are using huge bombs, and most of them fall no more than 200 meters away. This has taken its toll on this new generation — the first signs of trauma have been etched into the record of their lives and memories. Something that they had previously heard only in stories, they are now living. Their reaction has been fear and an endless stream of questions starting with, ‘When will this end?’, ‘Will they bomb us too?’, ‘Why are they doing this?’ And you have to try and answer their questions, even if only to calm them down. “In the now lifeless and silent southern suburbs of Beirut, the only remaining sign of life is Bourj Al-Barajneh. There is no sign of life beyond the edges of the camp. People gather within its boundaries, following the news, chatting, discussing and analysing. “During a blackout, men and women sit in front of their homes while the kids play around, before all of this is interrupted by a new air raid, accompanied by deafening sounds of explosions followed by the pressure shockwaves that makes the maze of homes here shake and tremble, drawing portraits of horror on faces, triggering panic among kids, and calling for an endless effort by parents to calm them down and keep them physically close and busy with something to play with. When the bombing starts, those people who can bear the scene just stand silently like statues and watch the huge bombs falls on ill-fated neighbourhoods. “The nature of the camp community is that people are highly attached to each other — the evacuation of one family would trigger evacuations by neighbours and inevitably create a sense of anxiety and panic. This happened a few days ago, when there was extremely heavy bombing that lasted for almost the entire day. A woman living with her kids close to our neighbourhood came to my cousin’s shop to buy supplies as she always does. The moment she reached the door and saw us all in the small yard, she started to cry, saying, ‘You are still here! I thought you all left, my neighbours left me alone, please tell me if you want to leave, take me with you.’ We calmed her down and assured her we would not leave her, and invited her to stay with the women so as not to feel lonely. “For the time being, those who can afford to rent an apartment or who have relatives outside the camp have left. But until now, the majority of the camp is still here according to yesterday’s census made by the volunteers. Some of the families who left a few days ago have returned, saying that they had the feeling that they were becoming refugees a second time at some school or shelter, or in someone else’s small home. It was humiliating and unbearable. “Why are people staying? “It’s something in the sub-consciousness and memories of people who have been made refugees again and again. It’s a simple choice between having to leave and wander aimlessly around to a place that may be more secure, yes, but that would cause more suffering in every other respect, and between staying in this horrible situation where bombs are falling all around us. It seems that at this moment, the second option is winning. There is no need to talk about courage and such things as the reason for why people are staying — we know already that there is no courage that can defy an F-16 — the God of our skies these days. “Working is a good thing to do in such days and I’m lucky — it’s the one thing that no one from the camp is able to do these days — to leave the waiting prison of the camp. It’s such a weird feeling to go to work along deserted roads that only a few days ago were the busiest and most crowded in the city. I walk and the only thing I can here is my heartbeat, the birds and my footsteps on the splintered glass, sand and small concrete debris covering the asphalt, as if expelled by some volcanic eruption.

“On the way, you see a few cars speeding by like bullets and some people walking, surely out of necessity. The cars parked along the way look like they exploded, shops and apartments are gutted. No door or window is in its original place due to the pressure caused by the shockwaves of the huge bombs.

“Coming back from work finds me engulfed in a flurry of questions from the kids who are seeking some sort of answer to what has happened and what may come. Maybe it brings them some feeling of calmness inside to do so.” Mahmoud Al-Adawi A refugee, Bourj Al-Barajneh refugee camp, 20 July 2006 Between life and death “Each breath we take in this war might be our last. But then we find ourselves alive, the endless silence only interjected by the harmful sounds of the Zionist airplanes. “I’ve never felt this united with death and life; there is only a line crossing between them. It is not we who decide when our bridge will be bombed, and when we will fall into the dark side from where we cannot come back. But, the one thing I’m sure of is that if death happens, it will liberate and free my soul. “I know that taking a break to write this letter is not calming my scared relatives. The last puff of my cigarette is no longer soothing. But, I feel that writing a letter is worthy, as it might be the last thing I will do — although it is useless. “I remember some of Guevara’s quotes: ‘I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man’. It is the same man whether he dies in Gaza, Africa or Lebanon — or anywhere else in this hellish world, and the prejudiced hands that commit the same crimes remain imperialism and Zionism. We know our enemy, and we know his beastly acts, but this will never scare us. Life and history have taught us to fight for our rights and for our lives, and death assures us that there is an end to everything — even to our enemy. “Probably in a few days the camp will be badly destroyed, and the people killed. If I were lucky, I would have had the opportunity to write my name on the holy land with my own blood. I know this land, and I know how much it deserves. It deserves more than God ever dreamed. “I don’t have much to say except that the souls of the dead are watching you now, and I hope that you can do what we couldn’t — break the silence of humiliation, stop the massacres. “There are many incidents going on here, and I don’t know from where to start counting, but I know that we will resist until we bleed our last drop of blood. In the words of Che Guevara, ‘Each spilt drop of blood, in any country under whose flag one has not been born, is an experience passed on to those who survive, to be added later to the liberation struggle of his own country. And each nation liberated is a phase won in the battle for the liberation of one’s own country.'” Omar Dakhloul

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