Page last updated at 15:57 GMT, Wednesday, 14 May 2008 16:57 UK
Inside a Palestinian refugee camp

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Beirut

Marwan, Muhammad and Ahmed in Shatila (Photo by Phil Coomes)
Marwan, 35, Muhammad, 77, and Ahmed, 12, share their experiences

Sixty years ago, the Diab family swapped the simple life of Palestinian peasants in western Galilee for an existence of displacement, dispossession and exile.

During the Nakba, as Palestinians call their 1948 "catastrophe" when Israel was created, the Diabs' hometown was depopulated by Israeli forces and its buildings were later bulldozed.

Village name: Birwah, Acre district
Pre-1948 population: 1,500
Famous resident: Mahmoud Darwish (poet, born 1941)
Captured by Israel: 11 June 1948

Family members were scattered either as displaced people inside the newly created Israeli state or, in the case of Muhammad Diab, 17, as refugees in Lebanon.

Muhammad, now a sprightly septuagenarian, has spent most of his life in Shatila refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Lebanon's capital, Beirut.

He never went to school or learned to read, but he has a sharp mind that served him well during a long, if trouble-strewn, business career.

His family's greatest challenges have been the wars and bloodshed that passed over Shatila camp during in the 1970s and 1980s.

But there are economic troubles too. Dozens of the most lucrative trades and professions in Lebanon are only open to Lebanese citizens, and therefore barred to Palestinian refugees.

Muhammad has never accepted his fate. To this day, he, his children and grandchildren demand and expect their return to the home of his ancestors.

'My land, your rule'

Muhammad, Marwan and Ahmed in Shatila (Photo by Phil Coomes)

After his first months of bitter exile in Lebanon, Muhammad says he slipped back into Israel in 1950 and hid with relatives who had remained and were in the process of becoming Israeli citizens (living under the protection of Druze villagers).

"Every time Israeli troops came we hid so we wouldn't be caught," Muhammad says. "We lived on charity: the Druze had to look after us, it's an Arab tradition."

Eventually, Muhammad decided to give himself up in the hope of receiving the same legal status as his relatives who had not gone to Lebanon.

"I went to the nearby army base and told them: 'I want to live here - in my land, under your rule'. They handed me a document and said I should go to Akka (Acre) and it would be sorted out there.

"I went to Akka police station, but instead of giving me papers they took me to prison. Then they blindfolded the prisoners and drove us up to the border and dumped us in a village inside Lebanon. That was in 1952."

The next time Muhammad saw his homeland was 1994. He got permission to visit relatives by crossing into Israel from the Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon.

He met Diabs who were now living as "Israeli Arabs" in a village called Meked. They took him to see his ancestral village, Birwah, of which barely a single trace remained.

Muhammad Diab in Shatila (Photo by Phil Coomes)
Muhammad lives with his extended family on Shatila's north-west edge

An Israeli collective farm had been constructed on the west side of the village's land (it is called Kibbutz Yasur, but the name is unknown to Muhammad).

New life

After his second expulsion, Muhammad settled in Shatila camp, a primitive tent city on a hectare of land leased by the UN from Lebanese family of the same name, which grew into today's concrete rabbit warren of some 15,000 inhabitants.

He married in 1953, to a friend's sister living in Ayn al-Hilweh camp in Sidon. She was from the Palestinian village of Amqa, near neighbours of Birwah.

The early years were harsh - tents let in water and families had to cling to the canvas to stop them blowing away in strong winds. It was no place for a young family, but the first of Muhammad's children were born in these conditions.

Only after five years were the refugees given permission by the UN to erect more sturdy shelters - with four wooden posts and a metal sheet for the roof.

Heavy snow in Beirut in 1962 - an exceptional occurrence - caused all the metal shacks of Shatila, and neighbouring Sabra camp, to collapse.

Lebanon did not want the refugees to put down roots there. The large number of mainly Sunni Muslim Palestinians would upset the delicate sectarian balance of Muslims and Christians in the country.

An Amal militiaman armed with a B-10 soviet made rocket propelled grenade shots the Palestinian positions in Chatila , 1986

In the late 1960s, Palestinian fighters started appearing in the camps.

Their presence in Lebanon was a further source of great instability - but at least under their protection the refugees were able to construct permanent homes of bricks and mortar for the first time.

Muhammad's last son, Marwan, was born in 1973, just as Palestinian refugees and armed groups were entering a new devastating period of conflict in Lebanon, reaching its climax with the Sabra and Shatila massacres (1982) and the War of the Camps (1985-88).

Making ends meet

The first family business was selling vegetables from the back of a cart, to supplement the meagre rations doled out by the UN.

After the camp started to take on more permanent characteristics, Muhammad and sons opened a small dry goods shop on the ground floor of their house.

Financial success came after 1979 when they started selling imported textiles, but it all ended when Shatila was reduced to ruins in the War of the Camps when pro-Syrian militia forces besieged and bombarded it.

Although Shatila was rebuilt and repopulated, now the family started to look outside for opportunities.

Muhammad's sons began a concreting business; Marwan with his prodigious strength led the work teams from the front, mixing the concrete and constructing wooden frames for pouring. His brothers managed the business.

Ahmed in Shatila (Photo by Phil Coomes)
The family makes a few dollars a day selling charcoal for hubble bubble pipes

For a time the Diabs won contracts in Shatila and other camps as well as in the burgeoning Dahiya district, a stronghold of the Shia Muslims in southern Beirut.

Muhammad's son Kamal, maimed in earlier battles in Shatila, successfully sought political asylum in Sweden. Muhammad's daughters have married and live with their husbands in refugee camps in Sidon and Syria.

After 35 years of happy marriage, Mrs Diab (known as Um Omar) died in 1988 following a long illness. Muhammad married again, but it did not last. A third marriage, however, has endured.

But with Lebanon's political crisis and faltering economic fortunes, the family's fortunes have also foundered.

Muhammad gets about £300 from renting the downstairs floors to clothes retailers, while Marwan has been reduced to selling charcoal from a barrow.

Hope for the future lies in the possibility of Marwan getting a loan from an NGO to expand his business or perhaps a Swedish visa to join his brother. As far as the next generation is concerned, Marwan's eldest son, Ahmed, 12, is currently being educated in a UN-funded school.

The hope of a return to Palestine, however, appears dim. Israel has ruled out any repatriation of the millions of Palestinians in the Diabs' position because that would jeopardise the Jewish majority in the world's only Jewish state.

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