Archive for the ‘volunteer stories’ Category

By: Annmarie Crampton

There is a father. Who comes home every day, around four o’clock, with dusty boots and tanned arms, after a full day of physical labour. First he showers, then he proceeds upstairs where the family gathers to eat dinner in the TV room (which is also the parent’s bedroom). The TV always being on in that room, tonight is no exception. Arabic music videos, news clips…I can’t understand a word; when I am not watching the TV, I watch them. Hamoudi running around, picking at food and spilling it on his face. Ali, the third youngest boy is ordered downstairs to get more utensils for Hamoudi.

My name is mentioned every now and then as I am asked if I would like any more humous or potatoes. What about pita? Do I have enough Pepsi? His eyes are tired and kind, this father. He plays with his youngest son Hamoudi, letting him push him over on the floor and wound him with bullets from a gun made out of tiny clasped hands and pointed index fingers. He watches the news, this father, and flips the channels as he likes. The Camp David Accords are on TV. Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton are shown. This father, he listens intently. He says they are thinking about economic compensation for every member of the family, as well as a relocation to a country of choice (perhaps Canada, Norway or Sweden….). I ask if he would like this. He says yes. Very much. There is a pause, and then he says something which is translated for me: “There is a saying in the camp. It is, ‘we live but for the absence of death.” Tomorrow morning when I leave the house for my 8:30 class, he will have been gone already for several hours.

* * *

She says to me as I sit on the couch opposite her, “Life is random, it is but chance, no Annmarie?” And I hesitate to agree. I want to tell her, that no, it is not chance. That you can’t think like that. That you must grab a hold of your life and take it where you want to go. That you must live with optimism in your heart and never believe those who tell you can’t do something. I feel a sense of urgency at the lack of hope which plays such a crucial role in keeping up one’s spirit and one’s will to live. I feel the suffocating pull of despair that threatens to overwhelm when such hope dwains. I want to comfort her like a child discouraged by failure; to convey to her what I know to be true but which she, from her perspective has lost a grasp on.

And yet I cannot tell her these things, for her emotion is powerful enough that it reaches across the room and engulfs me. I grasp for a more optimistic perspective on the stories she has just told me. Stories of how she is alone in this world, of how her family is dead. Of how after her house was bombed, that attempts to rebuild the living room were forbidden by the government of Lebanon because they took such an opportunity to tighten the borders of Beirut’s dirty little secret by half a room’s width.

But these stories are too real and too choking to see any other way. The tears run down her cheeks. She adds, however, that she has everything she needs. That she needs nothing else. There is a moment of silence. She apologizes for crying in front of me and for being depressing. She brushes away her tears, lifts herself off the couch, and moves to the kitchen to make coffee.

By:  Giulia el-Dardiry
Bourj al-Barajneh

The steps up to the roof were never the safest, but without electricity, darkness quickly settles in and turns them into a formidable challenge. I make it to the roof, however, and see the sight which has become all too familiarover the past two months – the Amlieh, a technical college on the outside of the camp, and in the opposite direction, an endless span of rundown roofs and wires of all sorts. * * * Tonight is my last night in the camp of Bourj al-Barajneh. One of twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, this has become more than just a place where I have worked – it has become a veritable home, with welcoming faces all along the labyrinthine alleyways and wonderful friends within the walls of most homes. As the days went by, I never once imagined that leaving would be as painful as it is.a necessary good-bye before we meet again.

By:  John Minnery
Bourj al Barajneh

One of the best parts of my university experience was the diverse group of friends I made especially from Carleton’s Middle East Discussion Group. They had an immeasurable impact on me, energizing me through solidarity and exchanges of ideas to formulate a worldview. I hope to someday-soon–apply my training as an engineer in a non-profit situation as with my hero,-literally and sincerely I admire his work– the founder of CEPAL, Mark Zeitoun.

I think the tragedy our governments-Western governments–are causing in Iraq is shameful to the nth degree, and presently one of the world community’s gravest crimes. Therefore I am so thankful that people like Mark are pursuing justice as best they can in such a meaningful and constructive way as he is, as an engineer working with the ICRC. The same is true about the continuing tragedy in Israel/Palestine and the self-sacrificing efforts of the present organizers and volunteers at CEPAL.

My CEPAL experience is unforgettable and my memories of it, from beginning to end are treasured. I enjoyed every part of it, from planning in Cafes in the Glebe or on Elgin St. with Kim, Maysa, Mona, Nader and Mark, to the fund raising, garage sales, my first ever–and probably my last– hair-cut-a-thon, to radio interviews on Nader’s Islamic Mosaics to finally but not fearlessly to the journey to Lebanon and the refugee camps. Our personal exchange with the refugees began after Nader and I met UNIPAL’s champion in Lebanon, Jenny. Jenny first introduced us to other like-minded and inspirational volunteers from UNIPAL, and a Norwegian organization. Then she introduced us to a Palestinian, grass roots, social system. I was so impressed how in the absence of a catering government the Palestinians had formed their own social security system, with numerous schools, hospitals, nurseries, and welfare programs. I was struck by the juxtaposed extreme filth and poverty and neighbouring a la mode material wealth: yet spirits were strong, and hopes high among the underprivileged Palestinians facing huge hurdles. I was struck by the evidence of the devastating civil war that had partially destroyed Lebanon; by the militarism evident in a tour of the edge of the Israeli occupation zone, through the UN bases, especially Qana.
I was struck by the civilian services provided by Hizbollah: water, hospitals, education and buildings, and by their popular support even from one “recovering” Christian Lebanese youth. I made many friends in the Palestinian settlements and I will never forget them, their struggles, or the injustices they continue to face. John G. Minnery With many thanks to Kim, Maysa, Mona, Mark and to my partner and roommate in Bourj al Barajneh, Nader and to all the other supporters of CEPAL.

By: Nader Hashemi

Bourj el Barajneh

“Welcome to Lebanon,” said the twenty-something-year-old attractive women from the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism. Pretty smile and tray of Arabic coffee extended, she was the last person at the airport I passed before entering the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. I was one member of student delegation from Canada and the United Kingdom (John Minnery, was my colleague and travelling companion from Ottawa, the other three students were from the UK). We were affiliated with the British based-Universities’ Trust for Educational Exchange with Palestinians (UNIPAL). Formed in 1972, their mandate was to facilitate a two-way process of education; providing English language teaching to Palestinians in refugee camps and introducing British (in our case Canadian) students to the every day harsh realities of the Palestinian people. For the next four weeks I would live amongst them, eating, sleeping, talking, travelling, debating and crying with them. Emerging from the airport’s main door, the warm summer air hit my nostrils. It was mixed in with a blend of exhaust fumes from a passing Mercedes Benz circa 1970. The time was approximately 9:30 p.m., the sun having set about an hour ago. I paused to survey the dark landscape in front of me. By Canadian standards the scene I observed as I exited the departure terminal of Beirut’s ageing and lacklustre airport could only be described as chaotic. Hundreds of people, mostly families, waited for relatives in a disorganized and disbursed fashion, many of them with their faces tightly pressed against the terminal window in the hope of spotting their loved ones. Automobiles with honking horns tried to meander among the throngs of people and exiting passengers, almost all of whom carried over-packed suitcases with their contents pouring out the side. What caught my attention immediately were the low-lying mountains in front of me, a segment of the Shouf mountain range. They were filled with flickering lights that resembled a vast array of lighthouses covering the Shouf like a blanket. After some initial confusion John and I quickly found our contact Jenny Reeves. She was the on-ground co-ordinator in Lebanon for UNIPAL, 24 years old, blond hair, five foot six, with a distinct northern English accent. Having lived and worked there for the past two years she spoke good colloquial Arabic and possessed good street knowledge. Not only was she to serve as our guide and take us through basic orientation but she was to become a trusted friend as well. Accompanying her was Yousef Husseini, a 30 year-old Palestinian, five feet eight, with a bright smile, well kept beard, medium build, who was an Arabic teacher by day in a UN school, and at night a Hamas activist (albeit from the progressive end of the Hamas spectrum). He was the driver that evening and was to also become, after many cups of think Arabic coffee and endless discussions about politics and religion, a friend as well. We exchanged greetings and within moments I found myself driving towards Beirut along the dark and dusty airport road. Huge portraits of Lebanese and Iranian religious leaders lined the boulevard into the city — Musawi, Musa Sadr and Khomeini. The first building of any significance I noticed was a large modern hospital, on the right-hand side of the road, attached to a mosque. It was part of Hezbollah’s social welfare program, Yousef told me, to provide low cost medical care where it is most needed. The Hezbollah hospital formed the approximate dividing line between the southern Shi’a suburbs of Beirut and the place of our destination and residence – Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp.

Bourj al Barajneh Refugee Camp

Located less than 15 minutes from the airport, Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp is situated just east of the airport road in the Haret Hreik section of Beirut. It became famous in 1988 when Pauline Cutting, a British surgeon, refused to leave her patients in the camp while it was under siege by the Amal militia. The northern side faces a modern Lebanese vocational school (Muhaneeya Amleeya) while the eastern and southern sections blend into the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah have their headquarters. I could not tell where the camp’s southern and eastern perimeter was located but I was assured the Palestinians and Lebanese knew exactly where it lay. There is no neon sign or banner that indicated the existence of the camp and were not pointed out to me, I surely would have missed it. Its approximate dimensions are 500 metres by 400 metres, located on a hill that slopes downward in an easterly direction. Bourj al Barajneh is one of three United Nations refugee camps that remain in Beirut (Mar Elias and Shatila are the other two, Tel al-Zaatar and Sabra were over run in 1976 and 1984 respectively). It is home to about 15,000 Palestinians with the numbers fluctuating depending on the season. Migrant workers from the Gulf, whose remittances are the main sources of income for the camp inhabitants, increase the population during the summer months when they return with their families. As our car came down the hill past the Lebanese vocational school and rounded a sharp corner, there was a steady rise of a pungent odour that I could not discern. Within seconds our car pulled up beside a huge mound of garbage that marked the north east entrance of the camp. It was to be the entrance/exit that we would most frequently use. I was awe struck by the enormity of the dump and the swarm of flies that hovered above it. I tried to console myself by saying that as bad as it was, I would eventually get accustomed to the stench. I never did. Retrieving our luggage from the back of the car we followed Yousef and Jenny into the darkness of the camp. The nursery school stood about eight metres inside the perimeter. This would be our home for the next four weeks, on the second floor of the school. I was told it was a fairly new building, run by the Women’s Humanitarian Organization, the non-governmental group that sponsored our stay in Bourj. Our room was about five metres by five metres with an adjacent outside patio with a roof and a small washroom and sink. It was empty except for a small desk in the corner, bookshelves, and few plastic chairs. A blackboard and some children’s posters hung from the walls. Not only did the toilet not flush, but the cockroach-infested room where it was located was serve as a shower room as well. Showers were taken with a juice pitcher and water from a barrel beside the toilet. I had been travelling for about 24 hours and by this time was I near exhaustion. My bed consisted of a thin mattress on a floor with a sheet and a pillow. I put my head down hoping I would fall quickly asleep. Instead I laid awake still trying to digest the fact that I was in the middle of Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. A motorcycle came roaring by. Judged by the enormity of the sound I’m certain it’s going penetrate the window and land on my lap. Wild dogs were barking through the night. One of our neighbours had his television turned up quite loud. Somewhere between the dogs and the television set, I dosed off into unconsciousness. I awoke the next morning eager to explore and integrate myself into refugee camp society. After raiding the refrigerator downstairs, John made a pot of thick Arabic coffee that gave my nervous system the stimulation it longed for; pita bread, cucumbers and lubne (a yoghurt-based spread) rounded out our breakfast. Jenny came to fetch us around 10 am for the first day of orientation and with the hot Beirut sun proceeding to its apex we toured the camp for the first time.

Description of the camp

Two things struck me immediately about Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp: the scared walls and the pathways. Almost every building in the camp was covered with scars from mortar shells, artillery rounds and bullet holes. Not a building was unscathed. These marks by themselves told the story of the camp and suffering that it has endured; the blood that was spilt and the lives that were lost. I was fairly well versed about the history of the Palestinians in Lebanon and knew that they probably dated back to the 1985-1988 war of the camps, when the Amal militia and its Syrian patron attempted to over run the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The pathways were the second remarkable feature. As we followed Jenny around, I observed that the camp consisted of an amazing labyrinth of meandering alley and pathways. There was no rhyme, reason or symmetry to their shape. Collectively they formed an indecipherable maze that boggled the mind. On either side were three and four story concrete homes. Most of them consisted of two simple rooms with a small kitchen and washroom. It would take John and I two weeks to learn our way around the camp. Until then we had to be escorted everywhere. Outside pipes and wires emanated from most of the houses. The plumbing system was amateurish and there was an occasion puddle of water we had to step over. Building supplies, bricks and steel rod – all of it smuggled into the camp clandestinely due to a Lebanese government ban on building – were visible as well. Electricity boxes and wires, many of them illegal connections, Jenny told me, were everywhere. Some of the homes had satellite dishes perched on their roofs. The succession of houses was occasionally disrupted by a confectionery store, a bakery or watermelon stand. Watermelons or bateegh were readily available throughout the camp and it seemed as if there was a stand around every corner. Our first contact with the camp residents was cautious and guarded. The presence of a group of English-speaking foreigners drew cold and unfriendly stares from the Palestinian adults we passed along the way. Most of them we sitting in front of their homes, doors open wide, idling their time away. A quick ahlaan or assalam- u- alaikum would break the tension and a prudent smile or handshake would follow. The children of course were a different matter. They were everywhere. Eager to test the few words of English they knew, they followed us around like an entourage, bumping into each other, bouncing off the walls, pleading with us to take their picture. The walls of the camp were covered with political posters and spray-painted slogans. The most colourful and prominent ones were from pro-Syrian Palestinian groups (mostly PFLP-GC), along with several from the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. Two faces competed for popularity on the walls of the camp. Hafez Assad’s picture was the most visible not only inside the camp but throughout Lebanon. This was clearly meant to assert control and authority. Big brother was watching you. Jenny was to inform me later that she had to supply our names to Syrian intelligence (mukhabarat) before our arrival in the camp. Yahya Ayyash, the infamous Gazan engineer and mastermind behind the Hamas bombings in Israel, was the second most ubiquitous face on the walls. In conversions with my Palestinians hosts, I would discover later that his stature was elevated to that of nationalist-folk hero. Throughout my stay in Bourj the air contained a mild stench of garbage and urine. If it was not for the breeze that consistently blew from the Mediterranean Sea, it would have been a great source of discomfort. Exacerbating this state of affairs was a municipal strike in Beirut that left garbage uncollected in the city streets. Despite this, however, the Palestinians refugees made a real effort to keep the front of their homes clean. Garbage collection and an outdated plumbing system they could not control. But to the extent they did have an influence over improving they living conditions, the residents of Bourj al Barajneh tried their best to make a positive difference.

Palestinian reaction to suicide bombing in Jerusalem (30 July 1997)

We were sitting in pizza shop in the Haret Hreik area of Beirut, about five minutes from Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp when word of a bomb explosion in Jerusalem came to our attention. By coincidence the restaurant happened to have a satellite dish that was tuned onto CNN. The initial reports were that 18 people were killed and 50 injured when a lone suicide bomber, thought to be Palestinian, blew himself up in downtown West Jerusalem in the Mahaneh Yehuda open air market. Twenty-seven year old Ghassan, a Palestinian who ran a coffee and cigarette stand on the outskirts of the camp happened to be sitting beside me. I pulled out my tape recorder and asked for his thoughts on the bombing, “I feel happy,” he responded without hesitation. Not content with his answer, I prodded him further, he added: “because Israel takes my land … this is a good reason to hate [them].” Indeed the initial reaction, from almost every Palestinian in Bourj al Barajneh I spoke with about the Hamas bombings, was positive. I struggled in my own mind to make sense of this. As a supporter of Palestinian rights I certainly could understand why they were antagonistic toward the people who dispossessed them, occupied their homes, and for the past half-century prevented their return. But the bombings in Israel were such a blatant act of gratuitous violence that I could not fathom how anyone could be laudatory of such clearly criminal behaviour. My mind went back to an essay I had read by Norman G. Finkelstein entitled, “Why the Palestinians Cheered the Scud Missiles?” He wrote: The “sweet taste of revenge” is not the most elevated of human sensibilities; it is also not a uniquely Palestinian one. Consider the American reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. In War Without Mercy, John Dower reports that Japan’s “surprise attack provoked a rage bordering on the genocidal among Americans.” Thus, Admiral William Halsey, soon to be commander of the South Pacific, vowed after Pearl Harbor that by the end of the war Japanese would be spoken only in hell, and rallied his men thereafter under such slogans as “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs.” Public opinion polls in the United States indicated that more than one in ten Americans consistently supported the “annihilation” or “extermination” of the Japanese as a people, while a comparable percentage were in favor of severe retribution after Japan had been defeated…. The incineration of Tokyo in March 1945, which left hundred of thousands of civilians dead, sixteen square miles of the capital city destroyed and more than a million people homeless — “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” in the words of the mastermind of the new strategy, Major General Curtis Lemay — evoked “no sustained protest,” according to Dower…. Elliot Roosevelt, the president’s son and confidant, said in 1945 that the United States should continue bombing Japan “until we have destroyed about half the Japanese population.” A poll conducted by Fortune magazine in December 1945 found that nearly a quarter of the respondents wished the United States had had the opportunity to use “many more” atomic bombs before Japan had a chance to surrender. Finkelstein closes his insightful essay with the following personal observation: I recently asked my mother, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Maidanek [Nazi] concentration camp, her thoughts during the war as news filtered back that the Russians were bombing German cities. “I wanted the Germans to die,” she remembered. “I knew I wouldn’t live, so I wanted them to die too. We cheered the Russians. We wanted them to destroy anything and everything German. We wished them death every second of the day because we faced death every second of the day.” As I walked along the meandering and narrow corridors of Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp toward my night class that evening, I knew the subject of the Jerusalem bombing would be at the forefront of my student’s minds. I taught a senior class to about 10 students most of whom were in their 20s and possessed a good grasp of the English language. In order to improve their speaking skills I would begin each session with a group discussion, often posing the simple question, “What’s new?” As I approached the Al Aksa Islamiyya building (a religious/sports/recreational centre) where my class was held in the heart of the camp, my students were gathered outside in anticipation of my arrival. News of the bombing in Israel had spread like wildfire amongst the Palestinians in Bourj. Smiles lit their faces as our eyes met. Coincidentally, the night before at Samir’s house (one of my students), I tried to discuss the theme of morality and armed struggle. I wanted to solicit opinion from my students on the Hamas suicide bombings. As I began to approach the subject that evening I soon realized that it was too sensitive to discuss; intense emotions overtook the conversation and before I could get my question out, I was subjected to a long history lesson about Palestinian victimization at the hands of Israel. After a few attempts I was forced to drop the subject altogether. As I went around the room the initial reactions from my students to the bombing were uniformly supportive. No one in the class expressed a critical point of view. In fact, I detected a look of perplexion on their faces which I read as “Nader, why are not celebrating in our joy.” I understood the context and fully sympathized with the perspective from which my students approached this issue. Out of the 3.5 million refugees who lived in the diaspora, the Palestinians in Lebanon were the worst of the lot. Abandoned by the PLO, despised by many Lebanese, forgotten by the international community. Thus their sympathy with Hamas’ actions was not a surprise to me, but I wanted to probe deeper. I wanted them to discuss their thoughts in greater detail so I posed the blunt question: “Why do you support the Hamas suicide attacks?” Jewish settlements in Palestine, Israeli massacres at Deir Yassin, Sabra, Shatila and Qana were listened as reasons. “The Zionist movement only understands force,” shouted 26 year-old Hatem, drowning out the other voices in the class. He had a thin beard, dark complexion and spoke relatively good English. His face tightened as he leaned forward in his seat and he added, “they (meaning the Jews) betrayed our prophets, how can Arafat ever trust them?” Knowing that most of the students in the class were Muslim and the building we were using belonged to an Islamic NGO, I posited another question that I hoped would generate some reflection and debate: “What does Islam say about the rules of war?” A momentary silence fell over the room. Yousef, a pious Muslim and one of the leading Hamas activists in Bourj, was the first to answer. He was one of the biggest ideologues in my class. “There are different rules,” he struggled to explain in his mediocre English, his facial lines tightening as he spoke, “between war in Islamic lands and non-Islamic lands.” He laboured with a few more sentences that I found incomprehensible. His basic argument seemed to be that the rules on warfare, according to his interpretation of Islam, were more lax and thus killing should be less constrained, when one was fighting on land where Muslims constituted the majority population i.e. in Palestine. “It is lawful to kill the enemy to regain our land,” he stated with the utmost of seriousness in his voice. The rest of the class listened closely. “What about children,” I quickly responded trying to bring some focus to our discussion (I meant to use the term non-combatants but knew it was too difficult a word for even this senior group of English students). He entered into a long-winded explanation of Islamic just-war theory, more trying to convince himself of his morally dubious position – it seemed to me — than anyone else in the room. At least this is how it looked from my vantage point. The rest of the class continued to listen quietly to his explanation. Bespectacled Nadeem, tall and thin and a few years younger than the rest of the group, was the first to offer a dissenting point of view
. He was responding to Yousef’s argument and clearly stated that it was wrong to attack civilians. I thought this was courageous of him given his younger age and the authority that Yousef carried in the class. He cited Bosnia as an example. If it was wrong to kill civilians there, he stated, it was wrong everywhere. 26 year old Samir, the person whose house I was at the night before where I tried to discuss the theme of morality and armed struggle, intervened with conviction that “the atmosphere had changed, the atmosphere had changed.” His English was not as fine-tuned as others were so his attempt to articulate an intelligible moral argument fell on deaf ears. What I thought he meant was that the atmosphere of the Palestinian collectivity had deteriorated over the last 50 years to such a hopeless state that all restraints should be lifted on attacks against Israel. The Palestinians were dying in great numbers and we should be allowed to take as many Israelis with us as possible, was the point I think he was trying to make. The anger and tension in the room, as the discussion proceeded, was almost palpable. It rose with each passing minute. It was exacerbated by an electrical shortage that shut off the fans on the ceiling adding to the tense climate in the room. We all had sweat on our brows. The skin on the faces of my students were tightly stretched as they all offered their rationalizations with the utmost of seriousness, about the bombings in Israel. A few sat silent and just listened. In the midst of our group discussion, which I was carefully trying to moderate, I slowly noticed that I was being excluded from the debate. Hatem, Samir, Yousef and Nadeem broke off and started to argue in Arabic amongst themselves, calmly at first, increasingly with anger and raised voices. I could not understand what they were saying but I knew it was serious. This continued for several minutes as I tried to regain control of the room, reminding the students that this was an English class, where speaking Arabic, according to our ground rules, was forbidden. As if to fill me in on what was resolved during the Arabic portion of the debate, Hatem conceded that “we won’t kill Jews in Canada but only on my land in Palestine.” I reminded him of my question, “what about civilians?” The debate then shifted to the nature of Israeli society, where all adults had to serve in the army and much of the population carried weapons. The inference being that most of the population were soldiers, at some point in their lives, and thus they were legitimate targets. We went back in forth, with numerous interruptions from almost everyone in the class who by now wanted to offer an opinion. The sweat continued to pour down our faces as the summer heat in the congested camp took its toll. After half an hour everyone in the room gradually shifted positions and a minimum consensus emerged. Everyone by now was willing to acknowledge, in one form or another, that the killing of civilians is morally indefensible. “But give us an alternative,” was a common justification I heard that evening. This was an important admission for me. I needed to hear this, perhaps to justify my own presence in the camp and to know that the Palestinians whom I had befriended had not lost their basic humanity where even the killing of children could be rationalized. The only hold out was Yousef, who you will recall was the strongest proponent of Hamas in the group. I taught my class that evening and after our standard good-byes walked along the crowed and congested alleyways of the camp back to my room on the second floor of the nursery school. The sun had just set and the athaan (call to prayer) was ricocheting off the walls of Bourj al Barajneh. As I stepped over one of the many puddles of mud and water that filled the camp I noticed someone tugging on my arm. It was Yousef. He had followed me home. “It is wrong to kill children,” he blurted out in his accented voice, in what seemed to me more like a confession than a statement. I could tell he did not take pride in the Hamas operations. The hopelessness of the Palestinian condition was the enveloping context of these suicide missions. It took wilful blindness not to see this, especially given the location of our conversation – in the heart of a refugee camp, with the stench of garbage and urine in the air and surrounded by walls covered with shrapnel and bullet holes. In order to maintain his Hamas credentials, following his admission, Yousef entered into an explanation that I later discovered was largely true. Prior to the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahim mosque in Hebron in February 1994, he explained, Hamas had restricted its attack to Israeli soldiers and military targets, civilians in particular were spared. After this gruesome incident and the dozens of Palestinians who were killed by the Israeli army in the demonstrations that reverberated throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas decided to raise the ante in its war against the occupation. We changed topics after I let Yousef have his say, and then he walked me home amongst the standard evening noises of the refugee camp.

A Funeral in Bourj

“Nader, did you hear what happened?” It was Jenny on the line as I pressed the telephone close to my ear to hear her words. “Two Palestinians,” she related in her distinct British accent, “were killed today from this camp in southern Lebanon by the Israelis.” I paused not knowing what to say. I asked for details and she told me the little that she knew. A mother and son from the Marmar family, residents of Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp were killed on Sunday, July 13 near Sidon. Their daughter was injured in the attack. She lay in the hospital recovering from her wounds. The next day I read the Daily Star, Beirut’s leading English daily for more details and made inquiries amongst my Palestinian friends in camp. Six months ago the Marmar family rented a chicken farm in the village of Barti, 10 km east of Sidon. Due to employment restrictions placed on Palestinians in Lebanon, many had to find other ways of supplementing their income. Abdullah Marmar was incidentally the principal Yubna, a United Nations school in the camp. He had 3 sons, ages 30, 20 and 17 and 14 year-old daughter. Following a Hezbollah attack on Israel’s occupation zone in the late afternoon on 13 July 1997, the Israeli-backed South Lebanese army (SLA), engaged in — what I was told is standard practice — and fired indiscriminately northward into Lebanon killing two members of the Marmar family who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I regrettably missed the funeral procession due to the English class I taught every morning, but I inquired if it was possible to meet with the bereaving family. I wanted to hear their story first hand and offer my regrets in person. Two days after the attack, we paid the grieving family a visit. The Marmar home was located near the main entrance of the camp just off the Beirut airport road. It was a typical hot July afternoon around 1:30. I was accompanied by Ali and Yousef, two Palestinian friends, along with John, my colleague from Canada and Su-ann, a UNIPAL volunteer from England. As we walked down the main road of the camp and rounded the corner it was easy to identify which home was in mourning. A group of middle-aged women were sitting in the shade near the front of the home. I offered them condolences in my broken Arabic and then we were escorted upstairs where the men were gathered. The roof had been turned into a makeshift sitting room, resembling an outside patio, rectangular in shape with earth coloured sheets providing some relief from the summer sun. There were about twenty men of various ages sitting on chairs along the perimeter of the room. Abdullah Marmar sat at the far end in a white dress shirt. He rose in his chair to greet us. I shook his hand and offered my sincerest regrets over the killing of his wife and son. He did not look at me but simply stared off into space in a trance like gaze. Our Palestinian escort, Yousef explained that we were foreign volunteers from Canada and wanted to interview him about the details of the artillery attack. It was important to document this story, I asked Yousef to translate, for in all likelihood it would not be reported in the Western press. The father agreed and I sat beside him in a vacant chair to his right. I leaned forward to hear his words. He spoke softly in poor and broken English, with a tone that was barely audible above the traffic from the nearby airport road. He hadn’t shaven in days and his eyes were noticeably wet from crying. I pulled out my tape recorder, he told me his story. “It was six o’clock in the afternoon when we reached there (the chicken farm east of Sidon); me and my wife and my son and my daughter. When we reached there, after half an hour, from the west-side of the house, near the kitchen and the toilet….” he paused searching for the right words, recalling the events on this tragic day. His grammar was poor and he didn’t speak incomplete sentences. “My wife was standing in the kitchen cooking and my son had gone to prepare himself to pray when the bombs fell.” I found out later it was a 155mm artillery shell that tore them to pieces, tearing off the arm of the 17 year old boy and puncturing his chest. The clamour of a passing motorcycle interrupts the interview. We wait a few seconds until it abates and then he continues, “after half an hour the soldiers (from the Lebanese Army) reached [us] and took my wife and son to the hospital in Sour. They died there.” The rest of the room is silent as they listen to our conversion. Yousef provides an occasional translation of a word. I asked about his injured daughter. “How is she doing?” He replies: “after the hospital we brought her home. She is downstairs with a wound on her left arm and face.” I wanted to solicit some details of the events just prior to the bombardment, so I asked Mr. Marmar if he had heard any noise prior to the bombing, in particular, did he hear the Hezbollah attack on the SLA which precipitated the shelling. “No,” he said firmly. It was quiet until the shells hit the farm house. “Barti is a Christian village, there is no war there,” he added. This confirmed to me that most certainly the Hezbollah attack was in a different area of the occupation zone and the SLA shelling was indeed indiscriminate. I pause for a moment, not knowing what to ask next. I was deeply moved by the story and profoundly touched by the sincerity of his narration. We are interrupted by a tray of thick Arabic coffee that I quickly consumed as a way of calming my nerves. A slight breeze is blowing off the Mediterranean, making the partially humid afternoon, bearable. I wanted to get more details from Abdullah regarding his background so I ask him about his main source of employment and his place of origin in Palestine. “I am a teacher in Yubna school and I have been working for UNWRA for the past 24 years,” he tells me. “Where in Palestine are you from?” “Fara, a village north of Safad.” He stops me in my questioning and says: “I want to tell you something.” Another interruption, this time a tray of cigarettes is offered which I politely decline. He continues: “When the soldiers came (to the cite of the attack), they asked me my nationality.” He stops for a moment, struggling to find the right words. “When I said I was Palestinian they did not help me.” A middle aged man sitting nearby rises from his chair and walks over to where I am sitting. He interrupts us, making I sure I get the point. He explains that because the Marmar family were Palestinian, they were treated disapprovingly by the first Lebanese army official who arrived on the scene. They wanted me to be aware of the discrimination that Palestinians in Lebanon are subjected to. This was a constant complaint that was continuously brought to my attention in almost all conversations I had with the camp residents. Yousef interrupts and hints that the interview has gone on long enough. The men are getting restless as I have disturbed the ambiance and serenity of the mourning ceremony. I comply, put away my tape recorder and reach the remainder of my coffee. It is time to eat and I’m served a bowl of rice and chicken. John is adjusting his camera when from the far end of the room a large-built man speaking fairly good English approaches and says in a loud voice, “this is a civilian area, this is a civilian area.” I quickly understood that because John and I were foreigners who arrived at the Marmar home with tape a recorder, camera, film and audio tapes, with the intention of conducting an interview, we were perceived by the Palestinians as reporters from the Western media. I nodded in affirmation telling him that I would include his remark in my story. This calmed him down a little bit. I did not have the heart to tell that we were only students from Ottawa, Canada with no institutional affiliation. He pulled from his wallet a medical insurance card, with the word “Medivisa” written on the front of it. He tells us with a look of frustration and despair that Abdullah’s 14 year old injured daughter could not get medical attention because the form of insurance given by UNRWA, does not cover wounds that resulted
from Israeli/SLA shelling. When I returned to Canada, I looked through the back issues of the New York Times and the Globe and Mail to see if they was any record of this atrocity. I was not surprised to discover that it did not make the news. I cannot help but wonder if two Israeli civilians were killed in a cross-border shelling by the Hezbollah, whether the Western press would choose to also ignore this event. To my knowledge, this essay is the only known record in the world that accurately documents the circumstances surrounding the death of the Laeka (1940-1997) and Ahmad Marmar (1980-1997).

Conclusion

I left Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp very depressed and disillusioned about the future of the Palestinians in Lebanon. When I got back to Canada and read the diary I had kept, looked at the pictures I had taken and tried to assembled and assess what I had experienced while living amongst the dispossessed Palestinians, I had to admit they were a condemned people. The evidence was overwhelming. It was the only conclusion I could honestly reach. Two powerful quotes kept coming back to me every time I thought of the Palestinians I had left behind in Bourj al Barajneh. Our last day in Lebanon was spent with Robert Fisk, Britain’s most highly decorated foreign correspondent and winner of the 1998 Amnesty International UK Press Award. We were sitting in a scenic restaurant having lunch in the southern port city of Tyre after touring Qana and the Israeli occupation zone, when I asked him to share with me his thoughts about the future of the Palestinians in Lebanon. He knew Lebanon better than anyone else and I always placed great value on his opinions. He put down his drink, looked me straight in the eye, and without any hesitation or ambiguity said: “They are fucked!” Fifty years earlier the State of Israel reached the same conclusion. In 1948, after the expulsion of over three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their homes, Arabists at the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a prediction as to what would be their likely fate. Their prognosis was that some of the refugees would either assimilate elsewhere “while the rest would be crushed. Some of them would die and most of them would turn into human dust and the waste of society, and join the most impoverished classes in the Arab countries.” Everything I saw, witnessed and experienced in Lebanon last summer confirmed to me that Robert Fisk’s grim assessment and this Israeli foreign ministry prediction was well on its way to becoming realized.

Donate Now Through CanadaHelps.org!

Subscribe to our newsletter

CEPAL cookbook for sale
CEPAL cook books for sale: $15 each. Enjoy Palestinian food at home! Email info@cepal.ca to order