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A Palestinian Refugee Camp in Beirut

Walking Through Shatila

by MALINI JOHAR SCHUELLER

Far from the opulent Golden Tulip hotel where I was staying in Beirut and a world away from the glittering shopping district of Hamra is Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp where in 1982, Christian Phalangalists, with the tacit approval of Israeli forces who were then occupying Lebanon, murdered over a 1,000 men, women and children.  It was more than a day after the killings, when the stench of rotting corpses brought journalists to the area, that the details of the events started getting reported.  Little media attention is paid to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, home to over 300,000 people.  These people are, to use Frantz Fanon’s phrase, “the wretched of the earth.”  Wretched not because of the squalid conditions in which they live, but wretched because they have repeatedly been attacked, blockaded, and denied human rights.  Yet they continue to resist, hope, and live with courage and optimism.

In the 1950s, Fanon prophesied that the wretched of the earth–colonized nations– would  prevail.  Walking through Shatila, one can distinctly sense the urgency and hope for Palestinian liberation.  We were a group of nine academics from the U.S. who wanted to see the living conditions of Palestinian refugees for ourselves.  At the request of a Palestinian professor from San Francisco State University, Sana’a Al-Hussein, a social worker from Shatila, guided us through the narrow alleys of the refugee camp.  Crumbling facades of buildings, some still scorched from attacks, puddle-ridden streets with garbage piled on the sides, narrow stairwells without electricity, and a crisscrossing of electric wires overhead mark the camp.  Yet, there is obviously a vibrant sense of community.  Talking in Arabic, Sana’a explains that despite the poverty and harshness, Shatila is a hub of real Palestinian life.  Families trace their lineage to particular villages in occupied Palestine, and bond with people
from their villages. The most visible markers of Shatila are the hundreds of different posters plastered over walls and strung across wires.  Arafat’s smiling face is omnipresent, but there are scores of others.  There are posters of different Palestinian leaders; those depicting the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland; women leading the struggle, carrying the Palestinian flag; one of Arafat saluting women martyrs, pictures of teenage boys who were killed by Israelis, and even some of Saddam Hussein. Posters of different resistance groups proliferate: the PLO, Hamas, Fatah, and scores of others.  Perhaps most poignant are the billboards marking the geopolitics of Shatila: “Established in 1949, 92 Km away of [sic] Palestinian Borders.” And there are the omnipresent red arrows with keys, marking the direction toward Palestine and claiming the right of  return.

We go to the mass grave for the victims of Shatila where Sana’a, who was thirteen during the massacre, recounts the events.  She remembers seeing young men, carrying white flags of surrender, being gunned down, and soldiers entering a neighbor’s house and shooting the parents in front of the children.  She remembers Sharon being in the Kuwaiti embassy, a stone’s throw from Shatila, and Shatila being lit up at night so people could be killed.  She remembers not being allowed to leave the camp and smelling the decaying corpses in the stadium near Shatila.  She remembers young men going from house to house, telling families who had died.

As we walk through the streets, young children run alongside, some attempting to address us in English, some mischievously demanding that their photos be taken.  They are obviously used to strangers coming to the camp and enjoy getting our attention.  They are also media savvy, and when a little boy gets me to take a video of him, he raises his fingers in the victory sign and chants “Allah ho Akbar.”  I begin to feel like a political tourist.  Sana’a takes us to her mother’s home in Shatila where the extended family lives in small quarters.  It is cold and there is no heating.  Sana’a serves us tea and biscuits while her seventy-eight year old mother recounts being driven out of her home in Israel.  Mother has a soft, kind face, a soothing voice, and dreamy eyes.  She counts her prayer beads as she tells us her story.  She was thirteen in 1948 and remembers hearing of massacres, of villages falling to Jewish settlers, and then a missile hitting a house at the center of town.  Sana’a’s mother has a sense of humor.  She recalls men from Arab “salvation army” as she calls them, who were supposedly there to protect them, but who just sat and ate.  During the six days after occupation that Sana’a’s mother’s family stayed in their villages, they saw neighbors’ houses being broken into, men executed on suspicion of collaborating with Arabs and resisting, and families being too afraid to come out of their homes to bury their dead.  When Sana’a’s mother’s father escaped and paid someone to rescue his family, they left with the clothes on their backs, and walked for days, joining the lines of refugees fleeing persecution.  Sana’a’s mother’s father rented some land in Shatila and started the camp in 1949.  She recalls living in tents in the winter, and then in a corrugated tin house where they were not allowed to have water indoors, or to nail the roof down. Solid construction would be possible only with the beginning of the Palestinian armed struggle in the 1970s.  Sana’a’s mother has lived through trauma, but she is resilient.  She is illiterate but immensely knowledgeable.  She talks of the Arab Spring, Assad’s attacks on his people in Syria, and the Mari Marvara (Israel’s attack on the Gaza freedom flotilla).  She is scornful of the young today who are interested in lipstick and consumer goods and doesn’t have a whole lot of faith in the Arab world.  Asked about what she thinks of Americans, she chuckles, “May god help them.  They are also oppressed.”

We leave the camp drained, yet energized.  Four generations have lived in the camp.  They have no citizenship, only UN identity cards, and are barred from 72 occupations in Lebanon.  Rabie Zaaroura, a young man who graduated with a degree in Business Administration, is unemployed and has no prospects in Lebanon. He wants a nationality because without one animals have more  human rights than he does.  But he welcomes us to his house.  Sana’a’s mother’s house has been destroyed and rebuilt three times, but she tells us she is patient. We as academics are patient.  We all support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which, modeling itself after movements for divestments in South Africa to bring about the end of apartheid, calls for corporations, universities, and other organizations to stop economic collaboration with Israel.  Mainline churches in the US–the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church have supported the BDS movement.  As academics, we all support the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) which pledges to refrain from academic, cultural, and economic collaboration with Israeli institutions and to urge our administrators to suspend ties with Israeli institutions (For more information, or to sign, go to http://www.usacbi.org/). We hope that these measures will bring an end to occupation and refugee camps, as they did apartheid in South Africa.  USACBI began in 2009 and has only 600 signatories thus far.  But as Sana’a’s mother tells us, we need to be patient.

Malini Johar Schueller is Professor of English at the University of Florida. She is the author most recently of Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship and co-editor of Dangerous Professors: Academic Freedom and the National Security Campus.