Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 09:04 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 09:04 | SYDNEY

Inside a Palestinian camp in Lebanon

26 June 2012 13:31

Vanessa Newby is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. All photos are hers.

In Arabic, the word masdar stands for many things, but one of its most common meanings is 'source', 'origin' or 'root'. This word always comes to my mind when news of an eruption among the Palestinians in the Levant is reported. It is a perennial problem that many scholars and observers of the Middle East acknowledge as being the cause and justification for so many of the difficulties besetting the region.

As the situation in Syria deteriorates, tension across the region is spreading, not just into Lebanon itself, in the form of street battles between Assad supporters and opponents, but also into the Palestinian camps. There are reportedly around 400,000 Palestinians in camps across Lebanon, mainly in Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. They are hotbeds of Islamic extremism borne of deep frustration with an international system which refuses to acknowledge what they and many others regard as their fundamental rights. 

On the latest occasion, earlier this month, the tensions in the Lebanese camps were caused by the deaths of Palestinians at the hand of the Lebanese army during stand-offs between camp residents of Nahr al-Barid and the Lebanese military. 'Infiltrators' and regional powers are being accused of trying to drive a wedge between the Lebanese military and the Palestinians. The violence and protests spread to the notorious Ain al-Halweh camp in Sidon, a place the Lebanese Army is loathe to enter and known as the base for the radical group Fatah al-Islam. 

Violence in Palestinian camps is nothing new, but this latest bout is a poignant reminder, occurring as it did around the time of International Refugee Day, of the constant insecurity endured by Palestinians in camps in the Levant. There remains great potential for bloodshed in these camps – within factions in the camp, between members of camps and the local population in the host state, and worst of all, against inhabitants of the camps triggered by instability in the host state. As the Arab Spring continues to play out, we must not forget these vulnerable populations.

I recently visited a camp in Beirut called Bourj el-Barajneh (Arabic for Tower of Towers) in South Lebanon. 

The entrance to the camp is deceptive. The first street is wide and filled with shops and coffee houses but then you turn a corner and you are in the camp proper. The streets narrow to the width of a man's shoulders and above your head appear cables, some thick, some thin, in large bunches. This is the water and electricity supply.

Scorch marks appear intermittently on the walls. This is where explosions have occurred, according to our guide Mohammed*, and they are a regular occurrence. On average, two or three people a year die from an electric shock. When it rains, it's best not to touch the walls as they are all live. I look up nervously and pray the clouds gathering above prove less menacing than they look.

Mohammed takes us on a tour of the camp. Within seconds I am lost and disoriented. The narrow alleyways weave and wind around buildings, some riddled with bullet holes, adorned with various pieces of canvas to keep out the worst of the weather. Mohammed explains how each area is named after a region or village in Palestine. As cement is not allowed in the camp, many of the buildings are ramshackle at best. Some look as if they are about to fall down. Small shops appear intermittently. Everyone smiles at you and gives you the traditional Arab greeting of Ahlan (welcome). One elderly gentleman stops us and thanks us for coming to visit.

I ask Mohammed what people do for jobs. Not much, he replies. And so there are many problems with alcohol, drugs and mental disease. As is the case in all of the Levantine states, there are endless groups of Shebab (young men) hanging around together, not doing very much. But here, somehow it feels worse because you know their chances of finding meaningful work is remote.

There are some ongoing projects such as a wall mural where each city in old Palestine is painted with details of the people who lived there. There is now a boy scouts and girl guides club. We are shown the hall where meetings are held; the pictures of the training camps look decidedly militaristic. Our guide nods: 'Yes, we are not quite like other scout clubs'. 

The fact is, these people want their land back and some believe force may be required. 'How was the 2006 war for you?' I ask. 'We were ready,' said our guide quietly, 'but you know Hizbullah; they are...' He indicates with his hands that he means closed off. 

Pictures of Yassar Arafat are everywhere. He is deeply popular and beloved by the people. Our guide tells us that his approach to Palestine was best: aim for peace but prepare for war. Palestinians have learned not to trust anyone, not even those who shout the loudest about their plight. 'We don't trust the Iranians,' he comments, 'You don't know what they are keeping in their pockets.'

Mohammed takes us to the roof of his house where he keep a husky dog, who appears very bored indeed and is intent on finding ingenious ways of escaping his pen. Not dissimilar to the people among whom he lives. We go for coffee at his grandmother's house. On the wall hangs the key to the door of their house in Palestine. There is no power so we sit in the dark and talk. Mohammed starts to discuss his past. He was a fighter born on 6 June 1982, the day Israel invaded Lebanon. When he was eleven years old he held his first gun. He tells us all he cared about was Palestine and its recovery for the Palestinians. He worked on the border fighting the Israelis until he was sixteen when he relocated to Beirut to learn to read and write. Now he studies film and editing, but he also helps to train the scouts.

Mohammed believes he will contribute to the effort to take back Palestine. 'Everything we deal with here makes us stronger,' he tells us. 'Our students are studying by candlelight so that they will be able to form a strong government for when we have our own state again.' Driving along the streets of Beirut in a broken down Mercedes watching the bullet riddled buildings pass me by, I feel I can breathe again. It took an hour and a half in the camp to make me feel claustrophobic. What price a lifetime?

* Name has been changed.