On a recent visit to Lebanon where I’m from, a friend who works with Palestinian refugees arranged for a group of us to visit Shatila camp in Beirut. I had seen some of Lebanon’s camps from the outside—one boarding school I attended when I was young was close to the Ein Hilweh camp, the largest and most militant camp in Lebanon. Another, Borj el-Barajneh camp, greeted you just outside the airport on the main road, there was no avoiding it.
There are close to 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon living in 13 camps ranging in size from 1,000 to 45,000. They are carefully (and deliberately, according to some refugees) distributed throughout the country but well away from the border with Palestine. (See With Palestine, Against the Palestinians at for a great overview of the dire Palestinian refugee situation in Lebanon.)
Shatila is a cramped (as they all are), one-square-kilometer camp of 13,000 and probably more if you include the Syrian laborers and other foreign workers who are increasingly moving into some camps. It was established by the Red Cross in 1949; the land it sits on is leased and largely run—for better or worse—by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).
We sat in a small room, the office of al-Najda (a women’s NGO active in many camps), next to their cooperative hair salon. We asked Nuhad, who works for al-Najda and grew up in Shatila to give us a general history of the camp before we were taken to see it. So she told us her story, a personal account of what she endured and saw.
She told us of how tents slowly gave way to more durable shelter in the 1950s, of how hundreds had to share one public bathroom, of growing up without electricity or water. How secretly at night they would build ceilings under their corrugated tin roofs. She said that when it rained and the roof sprung a leak, they would patch it with a flattened soda bottle cap.
The next decade was spent in fear as political tensions built up in Lebanon. The Lebanese military and intelligence services tightened their grip on the camps, surrounding them with troops and monitoring refugees’ activities. It took the arrival of the PLO from Jordan after the Black September (1970) events to break the siege and bring some semblance of life and hope to the camps.
Nuhad talked about the early seventies as the best years—the PLO’s presence and its political muscle transformed the camps, allowing the refugees to improve their living and economic conditions. But this would be tragically cut short as the Lebanese civil war is inaugurated in 1975 with the massacre of a busload of Palestinian civilians, murdered in cold blood by far-right Christians who wanted to cleanse Lebanon of all Palestinians.
Later in 1982, these same Christian fanatics in alliance and coordination with Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon would attempt to physically carry out their dream by methodically massacring 2,0003,000 Palestinians in Shatila and nearby Sabra.
Nuhad told us of how it all transpired, how even though there was mounting evidence that something ugly was going on in the camp, they could not fathom that an all-out massacre was being conducted. Even though the camp was emptied of its fighters under a US-brokered agreement, no one was spared, not the children, not the elderly. Many bodies were mutilated, women were raped by drunken militiamen who left empty whisky bottles among the corpses. It was an orgy of death that no one, not even people in the camp, could imagine.
The massacre started at the western and southern part of the camp. Those like Nuhad who lived on the east side of the camp could flee directly into the surrounding neighborhoods where previously they were given shelter by various Lebanese left groups, hospitals and mosques. But with Israel in control of most of Beirut, the fleeing refugees had nowhere to go—many Lebanese wouldn’t risk protecting them this time. It was only after three consecutive nights of carnage that word got out to the international media—Nuhad said she saw the first group of foreign journalist enter the camp and heard for the first time through a London radio station about what had happed on the other side of the camp.
Nuhad hardly paused before hurling us into yet another catastrophe that befell Shatila—what is known as the “Camps War” that lasted for three years from 1985-87. According to Nuhad, these were the worst years she could remember, nearly all of camp was destroyed by the end, hundreds died. Somehow, surely by some miracle, the people of the camp persevered and rebuilt their shattered homes and lives once again. Today they live on, but as Nuhad tells it, with little hope and meager resources.
As we walked through the camp to the mass grave where many of the 1982 massacre victims were buried, poverty was on full display in every nook and cranny. Everything was ad hoc, barely patched together, as if it were temporary, even though the camp is now 55 years old. The Lebanese government continues to do all it can to make sure that the Palestinians in Lebanon never feel any sense of permanence—two years ago a new law was passed to prevent refugees from owning or even inheriting any property.
This situation cannot possibly continue indefinitely. Many groups like al-Najda are working hard to address the endless social and economic problems that plague the camps, but international pressure from pro-Palestinian activists is necessary to pressure that Lebanese authorities to extend the most basic rights to the refugees. The excuse often used by the government that normalizing conditions for Palestinian refugees would undermine their will to return to Palestine hardly stands given that Palestinian refugees in Syria and Jordan (not to mention in Europe and the US) continue to struggle for the right of return even though they have been granted many basic rights denied the Lebanese refugees.
For more information about Palestinian refugees, go to the UNRWA website at http://www.un.org/unrwa/.
Other Articles by Bilal El-Amine