Just two weeks ago I visited Beirut, the city I’ve been waiting on for so long. Being there, my big wish was to explore Dahiyeh, the southern part of the city. I’ve realized it is an area totally separated from the rest of the city, an area in which the oppression and segregation of Shiites and Palestinians continues.
What really struck me was the visit to Shatila. I thought I was well prepared for it. After all, I did read all of those books and articles, I’ve listened to numerous lectures, watched movies… I knew what the world of Waltz with Bashir looked like, I knew the streets on which the characters of De Niro’s game were walking on, I knew all about the piles of bodies from the Gate of Sun, I knew about the dirt Beirut’s elite refused to see – like Lamia Ziadé wrote:
“But we still want to think that our country is the Switzerland, the Paris, the Las Vegas, the Monaco and the Acapulco of the Middle East all in one, and what’s more, we want to enjoy it. From the cafe terraces of Raouche or Ain Mreissels, where we sometimes go for a banana split, we can’t see the Shiite ghettoes or the Palestinian camps. And when we wear sunglasses we can’t spot all the dirt.”
Well, atleast I thought I knew… Coming to Shatila made me realize that nothing can really prepare you for it. Most of the things we know about Shatila are connected to the massacre of Sabra and Shatila (1982) and the War of the camps (1984 – 1989). Since all of those events took part during the Lebanese civil war I think our brain tends to put them in the “past” department. But there is no “past” departments in Shatila, everything spills into present.
The most tragic thing is not that nobody was really brought to justice for the horrible crimes committed in Sabra and Shatila more than three decades ago, the most tragic thing is that people still live there – in refugee camps, in dirt, poverty and desperation.
I was standing on the place where the massacre was committed, a small area of orange and brown dirt, thinking how it wasn’t until recently that a small memorial plaque was put to commemorate the victims. It seemed so unfair – for this place to look so everyday like, to feel so ordinary, a patch of land close to a small building, where chickens and turkeys sometimes come out to have a walk.
But that is what also makes it symbolic on so many levels – this suffering that goes on, continues and deepens, but still goes somewhat unnoticed, still gets perceived as a normal state of things. That is what Palestinian people understand the best, hardly anybody can relate to it as much as they can – life of suffering continuously followed by ignorance, by status quo.
In Shatila, more than twenty three thousands of people live in the area of one square kilometre. There are families of fifteen living in small room for years. Camp was built in 1949, and in the first years refugees lived in tents. In 1949 that piece of land was rented by UNRWA on a 99-year lease which proves it was known already at that point that the Palestinian refugees will stay outside Palestine for a long time.
In the 70’s, when many of the refugees lived in Shatila for more than twenty years, they started building first houses and small buildings. With time, people expanded the houses, doing it mostly themselves – which is a problem because the constructions in the camp are quite cheap and poorly made, and it feels like everything could just collapse one day. The very sad thing is that, if something like that happened, the world probably wouldn’t care.
I asked the translators that were with us in the camp if they had ever been in this part of the city before. They were Lebanese and lived in Beirut. They said this is their first time, adding that they hope it’s also the last.
In discarded Shatila, the view of the sky is prevented by the intricate web of electricity cabels, connecting all of the buildings and houses. Everybody is stealing electricity here, and a man recently died due to a dangerous encounter with the web of cables. But it’s nothing new here, people already got used to such stories.
There are special educational issues in Shatila connected to the school in the camp, financed mainly by UNRWA. Lovely people from the Association Najdeh explained to me how every year there is a battle about the finances for the next school year and UNRWA claims they are not able to finance it anymore.
At the moment there are around fifty students in every class and next year there might be more – due to budget cuts. Activists from Najdeh tell me that the big shift happened after the Oslo Accords, when UNRWA decided to focus more on the West Bank, while the Palestinians in Lebanon were left almost forgotten.
Health service is also on the long list of the things not functioning well in Shatila. “Panadol for everything” is already a famous saying in the camp beacuse it illustrates the situation well. The only help people get is mainly connected to food – certain amounts of flour, rice, oil, gas. But there are almost no efforts to move beyond the relief phase.
There are also a lot of Syrian refugees in Shatila nowadays, but also some of the Lebanese refugees who arrived to the camp during the Civil war. At the moment, there is still around one thousand people in the camp who have been there since 1949. They’ve spent their whole lives there and welcomed their old age there. I cannot even begin to imagine what their life was like, but I am sure it took enormous amounts of strength and resilience to survive through all of that, to still find a reason to live and look forward to every new day.
Some of them still keep the keys of their houses in Palestine, together with the small things they took when they were leaving – every year on Nakba day they take it out of their drawers, under their pillows and from their walls. They sit and talk about their memories and the right of return. But it seems like the world keeps on laughing in their faces.
Palestinians really have it the worst in Lebanon. They cannot get the citizenship, they cannot work, or own a property. Basically, all they can do is to be in a refugee camp, and/or turn to criminal or radical activities. As we walk through the camp, I see children playing with small wooden planks on the dusty streets, pretending they have guns and are in a war, behind a house that has Rachel Corrie graffiti painted on it.
In every corner there is a small dedication to Arafat, a relic from a long time ago – when Arafat was still young and cool, when he stood for something. The flea markets we pass by are modest, people are trying to sell whatever they can to earn some money. There is garbage in all colors everywhere, and the smell is far from nice.
I gaze up to the sky and think about the children we met at the Centre for psychosocial support. I think about the way they showered us with smiles and joy. They are children like all children – same in the way they treat the world, but different in the way world treats them.
What will happen with them when they grow up? What can happen with somebody who grows up in this environment? Walking on these streets it is easy to understand how one can turn to radicalism – when your life doesn’t have a purpose, you might wish to find it in your death.
That’s the south of Beirut, separated by another Green line, still unnamed and not very much talked about. Beirut, a city that sleeps above the ancient Rome, still doesn’t like to learn from its mistakes. Like the lyrics say – Make me forget myself, I want to be like Beirut. But the thing is – we’ve all forgotten too much, and some days it seems like all we do is forget.
//all photos © Ivana Perić, MER//
If you find issues in Shatila important, please see more about Association Najdeh and the work they do in Shatila and in other camps. You might ask them how you can help. Because there’s always something we can do and a way we can help. Hey, maybe you can collect some money among your friends and donate it to Najdeh?
Or you can try to inform the people in your country about this, protest and put pressure on your government to do something about Shatila and other camps (and Israeli – Palestinian conflict)? Or you can maybe even go to Shatila for couple of weeks and volunteer? Maybe you could teach English, or prepare some creative workshops? These are just some of the first ideas I had. Whatever you do, it’s important.