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From Yarmouk to Shatila: an Odyssey of Misery

There are places whose names have become synonymous with the tragedies that have taken place there. It is impossible to think of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Srebrenica, or My Lai without conjuring up images of atomic bombs or concentration camps or massacres. Another such place is Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp located on the southern outskirts of Beirut. In September of 1982, members of the Christian Phalange militia, aided by its Israeli allies, entered Shatila and nearby Sabra and engaged in an orgy of violence that lasted nearly two days, torturing and killing roughly 3000 people.

Yarmouk is a name that hasn’t quite made it into the lexicon in the same way that the places listed above have. But the horrors that the last two-and-a-half years have visited upon it certainly make it a worthy candidate. Its residents have endured fighting between rival factions in the Syrian civil war, a brutal siege and, most recently, an attack by the Islamic State.

Mohamed and Manar, both in their mid-twenties, live in Shatila. They married a year ago, and they are clearly very much in love. When Manar speaks, Mohamed smiles and looks down at his hands, waiting patiently for her to finish. When it is his turn to talk, she jumps in to explain a small detail he may have missed. When he says that he loves to watch the Chelsea football club, she puts her hand on his arm and tells me that Didier Drogba is his favorite player. On the surface they seem like a normal, young couple. But Mohamed and Manar are anything but normal.

They have escaped the war in Syria, and they have made their way here to Shatila, a place where almost everybody is a refugee. But not all refugees are created equal here. There are the Palestinians and there are the Syrians, and then there are the Palestinian Syrians, those who are descendants of refugees originally expelled to Syria by Israel during the Nakba – the Catastrophe. In a cruel twist they have become refugees twice over.

Established in 1949 to accommodate refugees who fled or were expelled from Palestinian territory by Zionist forces, the Shatila refugee camp has long been plagued by poverty, overcrowdedness, unemployment, drugs, violence and hopelessness. Life here has always been difficult, and the recent war in neighboring Syria has unleashed yet another wave of misery in the camps. Lebanon now has over a million refugees from that conflict, and many of them have made their way to Shatila and the other camps, swelling their already untenable numbers even higher.

Mohamed is a Palestinian Syrian and comes from Yarmouk, and so does Manar, although she is officially not Palestinian, because her father is from Kuwait. This means that, unlike Mohamed, Manar actually has a passport. It’s difficult to navigate one’s way through this labyrinth of citizenships, but it is important because one’s rights depend on it.

Yarmouk is a Palestinian refugee camp that lies in the city of Damascus. Established in 1957, it is not an official camp, but until the civil war began in Syria in 2011, it housed the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the country. Some estimates placed the population as high as 200,000 in the early 2000’s, but recent events have caused an enormous exodus of people. There are currently roughly 18,000 civilians left in Yarmouk.

I had met Manar the day before at her office. She works for an NGO that helps Syrian refugees in Shatila, and I had been looking for an opportunity to volunteer during my month-long visit to the camp. She had told me about her time in Yarmouk, and when I pressed her for more details, she and Mohamed had invited me to their home for a chance to talk further.

Their apartment consists of two bedrooms, one of which is occupied by Manar’s sister Farah, while the other, which belongs to the couple, doubles as a living room. The walls, which are painted light-blue, are adorned with dozens of photos, mostly of family members.

We are joined by Farah, and she has brought her friend Abed. Although all four are from Yarmouk, only the two sisters knew each other there. Now they are all very close. Abed sits on the bed between Mohamed and Farah, and Manar is sitting cross-legged on the sofa.

Mohamed excuses himself. “It is his job,” explains Manar, “to get the food for the dinner. He does it every day.”

Farah, wearing a bright, colorful hairband, is the extrovert of the group and is the first to talk.

“Yarmouk camp no longer exists. It is done. Nobody can live there any longer.”

There are Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The Syrian regime has long portrayed itself as the champion of the Palestinian people, and conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria have generally been among the best, and certainly significantly better than in the camps in neighboring Lebanon.

“In Yarmouk, you were treated with respect. Many people would go to university, and there were rich people in the camp with nice homes,” Mohamed would tell me later.

But the civil war changed everything. The most influential Palestinian faction in Yarmouk – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), under the leadership of Ahmed Gibril, supported the regime, and in the fall of late 2012 began clashing with anti-Assad residents in the camp, and in October the Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed brigades in Yarmouk.

Farah continues. “But it wasn’t really until December of 2012 that things got really bad with the attack on the mosque in Yarmouk. There were many refugees from another place staying there, and a Syrian army jet bombed it and a nearby school. So many people died.”

The army’s actions caused many fighters of the PFLP-GC to defect to the FSA, and after a few days of clashes in the camp, the rebels had established a fair measure of control in Yarmouk.

As Farah recounts the story, her fingers are interlocked with her sister’s. The rest of their family is still in Damascus, although they have escaped from Yarmouk.

“Everybody became so afraid. And people started leaving. About two thirds of the people in the camp left. We didn’t have any relatives living outside the camp, so we stayed. We had nowhere else to go.”

The very next day the government began what Farah and Manar tell me was “the little siege”. In order to force the residents of Yarmouk to turn on the FSA, they placed severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of the camp.

“Only one person in each family was allowed to exit the camp to buy food and water,” says Manar. “The soldiers would inspect everybody at the checkpoint.”

“But it wasn’t until July that everything became really, really bad. That’s when “the big siege” started.”

Abed sits on the bed beside Farah. He has a scraggly beard and wears his hair in a ponytail.

“Doesn’t he look like a Spanish bull-fighter?” Manar jokes. Abed is shy and speaks softly, and I often have to ask him to repeat himself.

“The real siege,” he says, “began in July of 2013. The army didn’t let anyone in or out of the camp. There were two worlds – Yarmouk and the rest of Syria. We had nothing. No food. No electricity. No water. At night we climbed on the roof and saw that the rest of Damascus was full of light, full of life. Yarmouk was just black. We would go to bed at eight o’clock, because there was no light.”

“It was terrible,” continues Farah. “People were starving. 240 died of starvation. Others were eating cats and dogs and even trees. Their bodies were skinny, but their stomachs were big…” She holds her hands out in front of her and searches for the right word. “Distended, just like the children in Africa.

“People in the nearby village of Yalda made an agreement with the regime, which allowed them to get food. But the people in Yalda hate Palestinians. So they would only sell us food at ridiculous prices. At one point a kilo of rice cost over $50.”

Farah appears most upset about the reactions of the international community, in particular, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

“They would come every two or three months and bring a little bit of food. I think they came mostly to take pictures.”

Manar interrupts her sister with an emotional appeal. “Why don’t they help us? We are dying from hunger and from bombs.

“We check Facebook every day, expecting to hear news that our friends have died. Dying has become ordinary. We should be very sad to lose someone, but we are not. If you live in Yarmouk camp, and you are told somebody died, you say, ‘Oh, too bad, what should we eat?’”

Manar and Farah managed to escape the camp during the little siege. Abed was the last of the group to make it out, and he did not manage to do so until November of 2013, three months after the beginning of the big siege.

“It’s a miracle”, Farah says, “that he is even here.”

Abed reveals the conditions of his escape. “Word got out that there was one way to leave. You had to buy a gun and give yourself up to the regime, saying you were with the Free Syrian Army, but that you were quitting. Even if you weren’t with the rebels, you had to pretend. Then they would let you go.

“And so that’s what I did. I bought a gun and gave it to the soldiers at the checkpoint. And they were true to their word. There were two others with me. They let us go. Or so it seemed. I immediately left Damascus for Lebanon, but my companions decided to stay. I found out later that the army hunted them down and killed them.”

I could tell it was difficult for them to talk about this very emotional subject.

“No,” Manar reassures me. “We never talk about this amongst ourselves, because there is already too much sadness. But we need to talk about it. And if we do it in English, then we focus more on the words we are looking for and not so much on what actually happened. It’s very helpful.”

The front door opens, and Mohamed enters with the evening meal. The main attraction is Kobbe, a Palestinian dish that consists of beef fried in pastry. The couple has no dishes, so we eat with our hands. We drink orange juice and 7-UP in plastic cups and cheese pastry for dessert. It is delicious.

“It’s the second best Kobbe in the world. Only my friend makes a better one,” Mohamed tells me.

The story of Mohamed’s escape from Yarmouk is complicated and difficult to follow. Before and during the war, he attended university in Damascus, which allowed him to defer his army service, but this deferral needed to be renewed during the siege, and he was faced with a choice.

“If I leave the camp to go to the army office, I might get shot, because nobody is allowed to leave Yarmouk. But if I don’t go, then I will have to join the army.”

Mohamed’s decision, which could literally have life-or-death consequences for him, was made even more difficult, since three of his relatives had been killed just a few weeks earlier.

“My family name is the same as that of a popular rebel fighter. So the soldiers at the checkpoint let my relatives through and then shot them in the back.”

Eventually Mohamed managed to obtain his deferral, and he fled to Shatila. However, Lebanon recently closed its borders to Syrian refugees, so he was unable to return to Damascus to meet the next deadline for his deferral.

“I am now stuck here,” Mohamed says sadly. “If I go back to Syria, they will put me in the army for two years. I can never go back. This is why 80% of the Syrian men are here. They can’t go back, because the army will take them.”

After dinner Farah and Abed go out, and the talk turns to the conditions in Shatila. There are complaints I have heard many times from other residents, and I have experienced most of them myself to some degree in the last two weeks.

“They treat the Palestinians like animals in Lebanon,” says Manar. “Really, really like animals. And the Syrians too.”

Electricity is cut for at least ten hours every day, and the tap water, salty and foul-smelling, is undrinkable. Wet garbage litters the streets, creating a stench that permeates everything. The current population of Shatila is estimated at upwards of 20,000, and they are packed into an area shaped roughly like a square, with side-length 300 meters. There is no room for new structures, so to accommodate any population growth, the residents merely extend the extant buildings upwards, usually with little or no planning or adherence to code.

“God must be protecting Shatila,” says a friend of mine, “because surely these buildings would collapse otherwise.”

There are people everywhere in the camp, and there is no privacy. The buildings are so close together that you hear your neighbors fighting all day, and you will actually know the subject of their quarrel. You know it when they hit their children, not just by the wailing, but by the smack of hand against skin. The extreme overcrowdedness creates a tension that has everybody on edge, and a small conflict can quickly escalate into a more serious confrontation. There is a great deal of violence in the camp. “Gunfights at least every other day,” a friend told me. Just last week two people were killed in a dispute over a motorcycle parking spot.

“Sometimes people will get killed because of even more ridiculous things. Like if your neighbor makes too much noise,” Manar tells me.

Unemployment rates are sky high. Because of discrimination against Palestinians, both official and unofficial, residents of the camp are reduced to attempting to find work in Shatila, but it is next to impossible. These inhumane conditions inexorably lead to heavy drug use.

“There are two jobs in Shatila. You can open a shop or become a drug dealer,” says Manar.

“It is a terrible place to live, but it is even worse for Syrians. The Lebanese don’t want us here, and neither do the people in the camp. Because we are desperate, we are willing to work for less, and so they think we are taking their jobs away. And the camp is so much more crowded now because of us. I think they hate us,” she says sadly.

Manar and Mohamed are Muslims culturally, but they are non-traditional. When they wanted to live together without getting married, their neighbors reacted violently.

“They threatened to burn us,” Manar says, “if we didn’t get married. So what choice did we have? We got married.”

They tell me what happened to Hossaan, who lived for a short time in the Beiruti neighborhood of Fern es Shibaak.

“When the locals found out he was Syrian, they beat him. How can we live in such a place?”

Most people in the camp that have told me they want to leave Lebanon mention Germany as their preferred destination.

“Everybody wants to go to Germany,” says Mohamed. “They teach you German, give you a salary and allow you to go to university for free. Any university you want. It is like heaven. And most importantly, they will give me a paper. It is my dream to have an identity.”

Mohamed and Manar tell me you need about $5000 each to make the voyage, which involves a flight to Sudan, followed by a trip through the Sudanese and Libyan deserts. Then there is a boat ride across the Mediterranean to Italy. We don’t talk about the dangers of the trip.

“When we get to Italy, we have to avoid the police and make it to Germany. If we do that, Dublin will apply, and we will be safe,” explains Mohamed.

The so-called Dublin regulation is a European Union law that states that in most circumstances, asylum seekers will be processed in the country in which they first enter the EU.

“That’s why it is important that we don’t get caught in Italy,” says Mohamed. “They would put us in a camp for one or two or three years.”

“But right now it is all just a dream. We don’t have the money to travel.”

“Farah will travel later this month,” Manar explains with a mixture of joy and sadness at the thought of being separated from her sister. “She will go to Switzerland as part of a project for her theatre group, and once she’s there, she will escape to Germany.”

Farah returns, as if she has heard mention of her name. She is excited.

“I bought a television, a gas tank and a stove, all for $100!” she exclaims happily. Manar jumps up and gives her a hug, and Mohamed smiles. Finally they will be able to cook their own meals.

For a few minutes it seems they have forgotten about their misery here in Shatila and about their families in Damascus. They are an ordinary family that has bought a new appliance. I know that seeing me will remind them of their predicament, and I wish I could slip away quietly.

But then we are suddenly plunged into darkness. It is ten o’clock, and the electricity has been cut. It won’t return until six the next morning.

They laugh. “No problem. It’s just like in Yarmouk during the siege.”

Yarmouk’s history may never be as infamous as that of Shatila, but as miserable as the situation is currently here, my friends are thankful to have escaped the horrors of the camp in Damascus. As the siege of their home continues in Syria, they know there is no future in Shatila, but they feel lucky to have the opportunity to build something, something that will hopefully take them far away from here.

More articles by:

Richard Hardigan is a university professor based in California. He is the author of  The Other Side of the Wall. His website is richardhardigan.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @RichardHardigan.

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