At The Gates Of Hell
Describing the Palestinian refugee camps with a few words is very difficult. They’re not tent camps, they’re buildings, creatively added as a structural maze one could only pray never sees the shadow of an earthquake. They’re not structured nor organised as a temporary tent camp might be to fill the imminent needs of someone having had their entire life destroyed. They seem more to run on a knife’s edge, a theatre of faces, innocent children stained in the mind by the atrocities of war, young men with kind hearts that wish to alleviate their pain and even older men, that wish to take advantage of the same. It’s hard to describe a refugee camp that’s been standing for the last 50 years. On one hand, it’s still a camp; on the other it resembles more or less a temporary settlement that has become permanent.
The Palestinian people were ethnically cleansed during the creation of the state Israel. They were thrown into tents in the middle of the desert; at gunpoint. And although the UN, at that time a very young organisation, issued resolution after resolution, the Palestinian people remained without a home until this day, even though they have bonded the Middle East, perhaps more than anyone else in the Arab world.
Rokheia stood up at the end, shedding her tears. I remained sitting on the dirty tiled floor, watching her stepping back and forth like a caged animal, surrounded by rotting walls and a penetrating odour of ammonia from the overflowing sewer pit in the toilet. She cried and cried and the pain was not of the loss of her husband, her home, her daily routines and a life torn to shreds, of the abuse she experienced at the camp being a widowed pregnant woman. It was also of the suffering of her people. After years of enjoying a safe haven as Palestinian Syrians, she and her family were again reminded of who they were.
“The rebels pointing their guns at us, as they took our men and we were pleading them to give us a reason, looked at us and told us, directly to our face: “Who do you think you are? You are not Syrians, you are nobody! Dogs!”
“Why do they hate us? What did we do? What have we Palestinians done to deserve this? Why is our fate to be treated like animals, as anything else than humans? Why aren’t our brothers and sisters helping us?”
She sits down again.
“We had a life, a home, why do we have to end up like this? This is not a life, I am only living for my children now and look, what is their life now? Which man would take me now? Would you take me? What kind of a life is this? Why dear God, Why? Dear God, please have mercy on us!”
Rokheia lets it all go, and then collects herself again. Ahlam cries in silence, starring adamantly at the same spot the whole time I’m there, never saying a single word. Her tears trickle down her cheeks in a steady stream.
Nothing is free in the refugee camp. Absolutely nothing. At first hand you might tend to want to sympathise with the situation of the newly arrived, however you quickly notice the society within the camp is also a reflection of the people living in the camp. You might argue that this behaviour has been imposed by years of oppression. As humans, we quickly learn what we need to do, in order to survive.
This is a certain moment in my return to Lebanon and the days I spent in the Shatila camp that I must share with you. For the suffering of Rokheia and her family should not go untold. The murder of her son with a bullet to the head must not be turned into collateral damage. The suffering of the children, quietly hidden behind innocent smiles, must not be mistaken.
The Syrian Army is no angel, but neither is the FSA (Free Syrian Army). The victims of this war are more than ever civilians. Army’s, rebels or fractions use them as shields, and we on the other side feel separate from this fact, as if these people could ‘just choose a good side’.
Documenting Lebanon in 2013 was no different than 2006. It was the all out destruction of humanity. The killings are complete madness. As if every age and every life is the enemy. I didn’t note down all the stories, but I remember people telling me with unmistakeable truth in their eyes, how they (the FSA) killed everything that moved: men, women, children, goats, dogs, chickens. Without any feeling, without any thought. “It was madness, as if the devil suddenly entered into our lives overnight. They burnt cars, homes, shops, even gardens, everything. All that remained was death, fire, and smoke and we felt we couldn’t breathe as we were hiding, watching it”. It was like a dream; it didn’t feel real. Yet it was very real!”
The suffering inflicted upon the Palestinian people has driven them to further violence, hatred, self-hatred, drug abuse, homelessness, suicide and other torments. “As Mohammed, a 22 year old Palestinian Syrian, took me to a shopkeeper in one of Shatila’s alleys to show me his selection of arms, he said clearly: “We’re at the gates of Hell here!”
I continually urge my network to contribute and continue to actively work for the plight of the Palestinian people whom again are caught in the midst of the plays of the powerful. The Syrian conflict has not only displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, but also Syrians. It makes no difference. I frown at the one sided mainstream media coverage of the conflict in Syria but the fact remains the suffering continues and more money will spill into bullets, than blankets for the forthcoming winter. I hope the campaigns staged by NGO’s and private organisations worldwide at least makes a noticeable difference to the hearts and daily subsistence of the men, women, children and families in this centre of this crisis.
I believe it’s important to understand soldiers, governments and whichever word you might choose for the opposing parties, freedom fighters, rebels or terrorists, depending on how much the media is rallying sympathy for their cause, are not the only ones who bear responsibility for the atrocities of war. Normal working people sanction war, support the waging of war, but if we take an honest look, those who don‘t kill are not separate from those who kill; we are all responsible for it. We are all responsible for the suffering of the children, for the abuse and for the injustice that is the daily reality for millions of people around the world.