I “knew” in some abstract sense that conditions in the
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have become really terrible since 1982,
and are now easily the worst of those in any Palestinian refugee camps anywhere.
Worse, even, than most of the camps in Gaza, many Palestinian friends
had told me.
But on this visit to Beirut I wanted to see the situation in Shatila camp,
where I worked briefly as a volunteer English-language teacher back in 1974,
A woman called “Maha” who works with a camp-based NGO told me on the phone
how to get to the NGO’s office near the edge of the camp. “It’s just near the UNRWA school,” she said. I found a taxi-driver willing to take me there. As we approached
the camp, he got help from a passing motorcyclist, who threaded his way ahead
of us through some of the dirtiest, most run-down streets of the Shi-ite-dominated
“Dohhiya” (suburb). We found the office in a trash-strewn alley tucked behind
some workshops heaped with rusting car parts.
At the entrance of the four-story building, a dishevelled young man was
cradling a Kalashnikov. I asked for the NGO. He pointed towards
some dark stairs and told me to go up a floor. Upstairs, two or three
rooms were just visible in the gloom. Another electricity cut. My
eyes took time to adjust. I heard the voices of teenage girls talking
and joking with each other inside a resonatingly bare-walled room. I
turned into the room, still blind, and was given a friendly greeting by
the girls. “Miss Maha?” I asked. One of the girls said she would
shortly be there and gave me her chair..
The girls continued talking among themselves. There were maybe 16 of
them crammed around two large tables pushed together. Two were veiled.
The others wore some combination of tight jeans and tee-shirts that
you could have seen in any poor area of the Mediterranean or Latin America.
Some had workbooks open in front of them, but no-one was studying
much. Just enough grey light filtered in from the single window to
light up the broad smiles that the girls flashed occasionally as they talked
and joked together.
Maha soon came up the stairs. She had a couple of quick, business-like
conversations with staff members in other rooms, found the teacher for the
room I’d been in… and then we were on our way. “You want to see
the mass grave first?” she said, referring to the spot near the camp that
has been preserved as a memorial to the 1982 massacre. I said yes–
“That, and whatever else you have time to show me of the organization’s projects.”
She was a friendly, capable woman in probably her early forties. She
was simply dressed in pants and a knit top and was unveiled, her hair swinging
loose in a long bob. She said she had grown up in Shatila but recently
moved outside it with her husband and their three teenage sons. She
explained that the “regular” electricity from the electric company was y
frequently cut off from the camp, and though her NGO was planning to get
a generator for the building here, they hadn’t gotten it installed yet.
Also, they had a lot more work to do refurbishing the building as a
The girls I’d been with were, she explained, part of a class they had run
for some time for camp girls who couldn’t find a place in the UNRWA school.
“”We used to have three UNRWA high schools in Beirut, but now there’s
only one,” she said. “They take in all the pupils who want to start
the first year there. But at the end of the first year they run a
very tough exam, and say they only have room to give the next three years
of schooling to the top 40% of the kids. The other 60% are sent home.
UNRWA’s services have deteriorated so badly! Anyway, we’re teaching
some of those ‘drop-out’ girls here.”
We were walking along an alley that was 8-10 feet wide. There was
no room in it for regular cars, but I saw a little motorized trash-hauling
tractor. Mainly, it was foot traffic in the alley– and not much of
that in the morning, because of Ramadan.
We stopped outside a tiny storefront general-purpose store, where Maha introduced
me to her mother and sister, both of them veiled, and both still living
in the camp.
As we walked on, she kept asking, “You remember this? You remember
that?” about various features of the camp’s geography. But it had
been such a long time since I used to come here… The only thing I really
had any memory of was the camp’s mosque. It used to stand near a T-junction
where one broad roadway through the camp met another. Back then, in
the 1970s, I remember a fairly broad plaza in front of it, or nearby, with
vendors selling vegetables from big barrows, and share-taxis honking and
grinding as they deposited their fares into the winter’s mud…
“So here’s the mosque!” Maha suddenly announced. It looked completely different. It was
just one high building fronting onto a very narrow alley along with the
many other high buildings that we walked past. All that distinguished
the mosque from the other buildings was an 18-inch-high
grill running along its whitewashed wall at eye level,
through which you could look into an elevated concrete courtyard set out
with a grid of little internal “walkways” and punctuated by concrete pillars that held up an entire, solid building above
it. At one end of the low-ceilinged “courtyard”
was a wall with names inscribed on it and a few plastic roses.
“Yes, that’s the mosque courtyard,” Maha said. “You see, during the
‘War of the Camps’ in 1985-88, no-one could get out of the camp to bury
the dead. We had to bury them right here, inside the mosque. Yes,
they were buried right here, all on top of each other, like a mass grave.
Then afterwards, they rebuilt the whole mosque building up above them
“How many?” I asked.
“I don’t know exactly… Maybe 200? Maybe more.”
I was in a degree of shock. I’d heard about the ‘War of the Camps’
that had befallen the people of Shatila just a few years after the 1982 massacre,
but I guess I hadn’t really focused beforehand on how ghastly it had all
been for them…
We walked on. Soon, we turned onto a busy and filthy street lined with
one-story stores– clothes, shoes, housewares. Many of the goods had
been put out onto the street on racks. Cars maneuvered and honked around
them. It looked pretty much like the Shatila camp I’d known 30 years
before,.. But then I saw green Amal flags waving over all of the stores.
“Amal?” I asked, puzzled.
“Yes. That’s what they achieved in the War of the Camps in the mid-1980s.
They pushed us out of this whole area and the one beyond it, where
the 1982 massacres happened. And they gave the stores here to their
We walked along the shopping street for 200 yards. Behind the shops
on the far side of the street was a little rise: sand-dunes topped by some
sugar-cane-looking greenstuff and a few raggedy-looking houses. And over
behind them to the right, the gleaming high scaffolds that support the lights
and the superstructure for the city’s big sports stadium, maybe a fourth
of a mile away..
“That’s where the Israeli soldiers were in 1982,” Maha told me, pointing
to the dunes. “The stadium was a big staging area for them, too, as
She laid out a complex narrative of what had happened here in September 1982.
The Israelis had brought the Falangists around to this side of the
camp rather than the other side, where we had started from…
Our family was deep back in the other side of
the camp and none of us had any idea that such butcheries were going on here.
Israeli snipers were controlling this street that we’re walking along, and
they wouldn’t let anyone cross it from one side to the other.
The killing went on all that Thursday night, there in the
area on the other side of the street. But we thought it was just ‘more
fighting, as usual’. We could see the flares the Israelis were using
to light up the area, and we could hear the shooting. Finally, a couple
of young boys were able to cross the road and they brought us news of what
was happening inside there. Then we knew! Oh, God, we knew…
We walked further along the street, then turned in to a roughly
70-by-70-foot, almost bare, yard to the left.
“This is it, the mass grave from 1982,” Maha said.
It had some of the elements of a place of memorial. It was surrounded
by a cinderblock wall, in some places painted white. Along one wall
were some small trees, and in two or three places there was also a row of
gangly white roses. The ground was ringed by tussocks of rain-sprouted
grass but there were big areas of stony red earth across the whole center
of it. Around the edge three or four large placards had been planted in the
grass. Most of them were simply plastic-canvas sheets printed with
large, grainy photos that had been stretched over bare metal frames, like
advertising signs. A dusty hose snaked over the earth.
The only non-flimsy placard announces in English and
Arabic that this is “Martyrs Square of Sabra and Shatila Massacres”
It tells us that the memorial is supervised by the Municipality of Ghobeiri–
one of three municipalities around here that are under the elected leadership
of Amal’s main competitors in the Shi-ite community, Hizbollah. The placard
is edged with modest-sized representations of the flags of Lebanon and Palestine,
both on a background of Hizbullah’s signature color, yellow. It has
a Koranic invocation of blessing for the souls of the “martyrs”.
And that was it. There was
no-one tending the place… only a bare minimum of information… no
place a person could sit in contemplation or prayer.
As we looked round, Maha said,”We used to have an okay memorial here, in
the years right after the massacre. But when Amal came and started
the War of the Camps, they over-ran this whole area. The merchants
in those stores there would just dump their trash here. Boys played
football here. The whole place stank… Things actually got much better
here after Hizbullah took over.”
We walked slowly back along the shopping street toward the main part of the
camp. Hizbullah had also, Maha told me, erected big drinking-water
cisterns in some parts of the camp. We passed a couple– they actually
seemed to bear the colors and insignias of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
rather than of Hizbullah, but maybe the Hizbis had helped to install them?
At other points inside the camp, blue EU flags fly above other drinking-water
“Let’s just walk along the camp’s alleys a little,” Maha suggested, taking
me diving in between two of the stores on the busy street. Suddenly
we were in a place like I’ve never been in before. In this part of
the camp, the people were living in concrete buildings rising seven and eight
stories high– and separated from each other only by thread-like alleys
just wide enough for two people to pass each other sideways. Almost
zero sunlight reached down to street level. The buildings went on and
on like that, crammed right up against each other, with only the tiny passageways
twisting and snaking between them, for hundreds of yards without end. The
small courtyards and sun-fed greenery that I remembered from 1974 were nowhere
to be seen.
“My God, what happened here?”
“They just kept crowding us in,” she said. “It got worse and worse.
We couldn’t build outwards because of the Amal siege, so people just
had to continue building upwards. Also, you know Tel al-Zaatar?”
Know Tel al-Zaatar? Of course I did. Tel al-Zaatar (which means
“Hill of Thyme”) had been another large Palestinian refugee camp, located
over in East Beirut, inside the area controlled by the Falangists. The
Falangists, led by Bashir Gemayyel, had over-run the whole camp in August
1976, committing a hideous slaughter of the menfolk there as they did so.
As a journo at the time, I covered many aspects of that slaughter…
Yes, I knew Tel al-Zaatar…
“So you know that the women and kids who survived Tel al-Zaatar went to live
for some years in Damour…” Yes, I remembered that, too. Damour
had been a Christan town south of Beirut. It was sacked by the Muslim/leftist
forces later in 1976 (I think). There had been some wanton killing
there, but not nearly as much as in the fall of Tel al-Zaatar. But
there had, certainly, been a total “ethnic cleansing” of the Chrstians out
of the town at the time. The Tel al-Zaatar survivors were trucked down
to the bombed-out houses of Damour and installed there. It was a huge
project to try to make them weatherproof again before the next winter…
(The Christians of Damour found refuge in East Beirut, in housing that had
been “ethnically cleansed” of Shi-ites in an earlier round of fighting….
The Shi-ites had gone mainly to the southwest Beirut “Dohhiya”, where
they were an important base for Amal… And so it all went on, in those ghastly
years of war, killing, and social upheaval.)
After 1982, the Israelis were in charge in Damour and the region around it.
They tossed the Tel al-Zaatar people out of Damur and brought the town’s
original Christian residents back in. The Zaataris went and mass-squatted
in a few of the big hotels on West Beirut’s beach-front, as I recall.
Then in 1989, the Lebanese parties made a big effort to end their civil war,
with a Saudi-sponsored pact caled the Taef Agreement. One thing that
nearly all the participants there were agreed on was–sadly–their hatred
of the Palestinians. The government that then took over immediately
said it wanted the Zaataris out of the hotels so they could be rehabilitated.
It didn’t give them any new place to go… Nearly all Lebanese
people except the Hizbullah people just wanted (and still want) the Palestinian
refugees to go away, already.
But the government did give each of the Zaatari families $5,000, and “graciously”
said they could go relocate in Shatila.
That was the origin of the incredible–and totally vertical–building boom
whose results I saw in Shatila. Because of the influx of Zaataris into
the camp, it was the only one in the whole country where the Lebanese government
would allow any significant new construction. And to fit the Zaataris
in, that construction could only go upward. Most of the $5,000 grants
went to pay for the building materials. The Zaataris built, effectively,
an entire additional refugee camp right on top of the one that had been there
Maha led me expertly through the dim alleys. The lack of any means
of ventilation meant that the air felt damp and clammy. God knows how
it felt inside the massive concrete cages that crowded in all round us.
“How many people live here?” I asked.
“No-one knows exactly. UNRWA says there are 12,000 registered refugees
here. But there are also Palestinians here who are not registered refugees,
and there are people who not Paestinians at all. Also, some people
who are refugees registered here are now living outside. It’s complicated.
Probably somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000?”
This towering warren of refugee shelters covers just under one square kilometre,
and is described by some European specialists as the most crowded spot anywhere
on the earth.
We turned into an alley where childrens voices rang out of an open window.
“Our kindergarten,” Maha announced proudly, turning in. At the
ground-floor level there were two rooms. One was an office, where the
kindergarten director sat trying to balance the project’s accounts. The
other was the 3-year-olds’ classroom.
Eighteen tots in pink smocks were sitting around little tables having a mid-morning
meal of manaqeesh (toasted, thyme-covered pita). Their behavior
seemed preternaturally orderly, and they all seemed skinny and under-sized.
But the room–indeed, most of the whole school–was painted in a lively
pink, and on shelves on the wall were many developmentally appropriate, brightly-colored
I went up the winding stairs to the three eqally pink classrooms on the second
floor where four- and five-year-olds were also having their meal-break. The
five-year-olds seemed more lively and boisterous, and eagerly introduced
themselves to me. Their teacher showed me samples of their workbooks:
nice, colorful books that the kids could actually write in as they practiced
some easy arithmetic, and writing in Arabic and English.
The classrooms were painfully small. Each had three low round tables
with girls and boys squeezed around them on tiny, kid-sized chairs: some
18-22 pink-smocked kids in each room, with just enough space left in
one corner for a mat where maybe half the class could sit together for story-time.
I didn’t have time to ask if they had any provision for PE. I
saw no plants, no baby animals, no sunlight at all… Well, the kindergarten
did at least have electricity–from their own generator. And it had
water for the kids that had been purchased and was stored in a big cistern
under the stairs.
So the kids end up living most of their childhoods locked up in that vast
concrete warren without seeing much sunshine or ever feeling much open air?
(Though I am sure that coming to the gaily painted, orderly fun of
the kindergarten is a real benefit for them.)
… I found the whole visit to the camp quite upsetting, I have to say. For
lots of reasons. The depressing sight of how the camp residents have
been forced to live… And knowing that these circumstances are completely
the result of decisions made by political leaders— with most of that
responsibility lying with non-Palestinians, but some with Palestinian political
I was upset for other reasons, too. Partly, some guilt at the sense
of my own inattention to what had been going on in the camp after I turned
my back on the girls I taught there back in 1974.
When I asked Maha about them, she stood in the alley and thought carefully
for a while. She seemed to have an amazing memory for everything to
do with the history of the camp. “Khadija… Najat… Ruqaya?” she
said. “H’mmm. I think maybe all three of them ended up in America.”
If any of you JWN readers knows anyone who might fit this description–
one of those three names; born around 1960; grew up in Shatila camp– please,
please could you have them get in touch with me? Thanks!