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Inside a Palestinian refugee camp



Martin Asser spent a week in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, meeting some of the prominent personalities among the population of Palestinian refugees.

ARTIST IN RESIDENCE

Photo by Phil Coomes

Hamza Bishtawi is a writer and journalist who doubles as the Shatila camp co-ordinator with the Lebanese local council responsible for the area. He is also the honourable secretary of the Palestinian Writers Union in Lebanon.

The camp is a place of creative energy, we have poets, story-tellers, painters, but they are not given enough exposure, for political reasons. Only the bad side is shown, the overcrowding, the people, the pollution. You don't hear about the exchange visits we arrange with people outside the camp, Lebanese and internationals.

We see ourselves as upholders of an almost holy cause, for justice for the Palestinians. In the diaspora, we can learn from our compatriots in the West Bank and Gaza, and we can carry on the cause ourselves. It is like a marathon run as a relay race. I was born in 1965 in Lebanon. I was outside Palestine but I insist on life, and our sacrifice is for life and not for death.

My home is Acre, in Palestine. But I will never go to visit it as a tourist. I will go to claim my land. It is close, it won't be long. I'm sure that our return will be in less than the 60 years we have been absent. The countdown has started.


VETERAN TEACHER
Photo by Martin Asser

Ahmed Halimeh is a science teacher in a UN-run school for Palestinian refugees. Out of school he does social work for a non-governmental organisation he co-founded.

I have taught generations of children in Shatila camp. We have hardly enough time and resources to give them the education they need. The schools work double shifts, with two schools of about 300 pupils sharing one building - they take it in turns to have lessons in early morning or the evening. If children drop out of school, I see it as my duty to go and visit the family and try to persuade them to return. Education is the best weapon the Palestinian refugees have, their only weapon.

I have lived through the worst times in this camp. When we were under siege in the War of the Camps, I went from house to house to make sure people had food and water. Conditions were absolutely inhuman. Now times are better and the Shia militiamen who used to shoot at us are now our neighbours. I still see the sniper who used to fire at me in the market. We say hello to each other - I will never point him out to my son, in case he wants to take revenge!


DEDICATED MEDIC

Photo by Phil Coomes

Hala Abdul Rahman is a doctor at the Palestinian Red Crescent clinic in Shatila camp. Palestinian refugees are not permitted to work in Lebanese hospitals or medical centres.

My family is from Kabri, northern Galilee. It was the scene of a big battle in which 100 British soldiers were killed in the 1930s. Afterwards everything was destroyed by Israel except the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. My brother and sister were both martyred in battles in the 1980s. The Israelis took my cousin to Ansar prison in 1982 and we never saw him again. But I consider myself and my family lucky. In some cases there were 'houses which were closed' (that is families where everyone died).

Palestinian doctors working for the UN make about $200 a month, which is not much for someone with medical training. Many qualified people leave to work in Europe or the Gulf, where they can make much higher salaries. But I am going to stay here, because the people in the camp need our help.


PARTY OFFICIAL

Photo by Phil Coomes

Suleiman Abul Hadi is the chair of Shatila's popular committee which is in charge of the day-to-day administration of the camp. He belongs to a pro-Syrian splinter group called Fatah Intifada which has strong support in the camp.

We don't have rights here. Lebanon wants to follow the US plan to either naturalise us or send us back to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority also wants to remove us from the equation. But we insist that we must go back to our soil, our homes, our towns. The worst option would be surrender to Israel and return to a miniature Palestinian state. That would just start a new round of conflict.

I don't want to throw the Jews into the sea, I want us to live together, if they want to. I have 11 children, but I am ready to have 20 children. We bring up our children so that even before they tell you their name they will say 'I am a Palestinian'. It is a treasure that our children accept their situation with such good grace.

We have a very good society, a cohesive society with solidarity and a collective spirit, pride and self-respect. That does not mean we accept, frankly, the shit that we live amongst, the intermittent electricity, the undrinkable water.

The crucial thing is to raise the level of services, especially education, with 40 children per class and overworked teachers, and medical services, some of which aren't covered by the UN at Haifa hospital (in Burj al-Barajneh camp).

People are dying unnecessarily; our hospital doesn't do echo cardiograms, for example; if someone has a medical emergency sometimes it takes too long for the ambulances to arrive from Burj to save them.


PALESTINE PILGRIM
Photo by Phil Coomes

Abu Nisa runs a thriving laundry and ironing business just outside Shatila camp, but he has spent most of his life living on the east side of the camp. His family lived in the town of Majdal Kurum in Galilee, famed for the quality of its grape vines. Refugees from the town operate a committee to keep traditional activities and the folklore of their town alive in the diaspora.

I have visited Palestine twice. I went on a kind of pilgrimage to our holy places, so I went to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the next time I went to the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron and prayed there.

I am certain we shall return to Palestine, if not us then our children or our grandchildren will return.

It is true that many sons of Shatila camp take European passports if they are given the opportunity. But what do they do when they get Danish nationality or Swedish nationality? The first thing they do is use it to travel to Palestine.


CAMP SECURITY
Shatila security guard

Abu Wisam (not pictured) is the elected head of the Shatila popular security committee. His group is supported by all the political factions in the camp and is responsible for law and order and keeping the peace.

If we have a problem between two people in the camp which results in violence or a fight, I like to be the first person to visit them, unarmed, by myself, to see if I can solve it peacefully, within the camp.

If someone is injured I would rather the one who caused it paid compensation than for him to be handed to the Lebanese police. Sometime we punish criminals by locking them up in a cell we have, or by cutting their hair off. Only if it is a serious crime like rape or murder would we get the police involved.

The police do not have the capability to come into the camp without our co-operation.

In 2006, Fatah al-Islam (an armed group which battled government forces for months in Nahr al-Bared camp, causing hundreds of deaths and widespread destruction) came to Shatila and because we were alert to the danger we were able to expel them before they caused any trouble. We probably averted disaster for Shatila camp like this.




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