May 29, 2007
Bedawi Camp, N. Lebanon
Bedawi Camp is much like other Palestinian Camps: crowded, narrow streets winding between cement buildings hung with tangles of wire, the ground running with water, often muddy because it is not tarred. Small scooter motor bikes push their way between the people, children with clothes too small from them and holed at the knees running and playing ball and wanting to pose for photo after photo. But today Bedawi Camp is more crowded than usual as it is offering refuge to a people who are yet again displaced and are yet again fleeing conflict and are yet again having to leave everything behind them: clothes, food, mattresses and often brothers and husbands as well. They have come here with nothing and the Palestinian people in Bedawi Camp are opening their poverty-stricken homes to them.
It is not just Bedawi that is now sheltering the families who have been fortunate enough to escape the besieged and death-strewn streets of Nahr al-Bared Camp. Families have fled as far south as Beirut and some say even further. Shatila, witness to its own massacre, is now opening its homes to the 153 families who have so far arrived there. Aid is funneling into Bedawi but nothing is yet reaching Shatila. Many of the families here have escaped without so much as their IDs on them.
In Bedawi the injured and the well share the same piece of bread; in Shatilla the wife is without her husband and shares the same mattress as her three or four children, and often no mattress at all.
Many who have fled have no way of knowing how their men-folk are, still stuck within their besieged Camp. One woman told me how the last thing she saw as she left with her baby was her husband bleeding from a gun shot wound to his shoulder. She was weeping as she told me she couldn't help wondering if she would ever see him again.
'How do I know that Shatila is not going to be my home now forever? Maybe you can not understand what the life of the refugee is. Always fleeing, always living in a place that it temporary and always dreamingWhat do I dream for now you ask?
To return to Palestine? No, just to return to Nahr al-Bared and see that my husband is well.'
It is humbling to see how much the Palestinian people are giving to their newly displaced brethren. I have seen men donating $100.00, piling clothes into the central bin where we are collecting, giving blankets and of course the roof of their homes, when they themselves have so little. These people are living below the poverty line, in crowded and cramped camps with no stable income or prospect of a future and yet they are the ones donating and opening their arms to the victims of political complexities and international interference that is escalating out of control in this country.
As we were working in Shatila we received news that the Lebanese government has given Palestinian leaders 72 hours to solve the standoff in the north of Lebanon or they will storm the Camp with their US donated weaponry.
The Palestinian leaders must solve the problem with a group of extreme militants who are 70 per cent not Palestinian and who were armed in the first placed by the Siniora Government against Hezbollah, or else their people will be massacred and another Camp will be stained with a history of horror?
What can storming the Camp possibly achieve?
The Siniora Government says it will 'root out terrorism' because Lebanon has suddenly become the play ground for the 'War On Terror'. But how is this expected to happen? At the most 200 militants will be killed or forced to commit suicide. But will this end Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon? No one is simple enough to imagine so. Such a movement is only going to manifest and grow if a small number of its members are annihilated in so disgusting a way.
And most importantly what will be the cost? Death to the civilians still caught in the Camp, injuries and anguish. Destruction to the Camp's poor infrastructure and little likelihood of it ever being funded to be rebuilt.
An explosion of anger in all the Palestinian camps against the government and most importantly against the Lebanese Army which has proved it is the only institution in the country that over the past four months has kept civil war at a tentative distance. If the Lebanese Army is ordered to storm the camp they will loose the respect that most factions in this country have for them.
In short the majority of people very pragmatically say that if the camp is stormed, civil war will be very difficult to avoid in the whole of Lebanon. Along with the civil war that will follow the long established lines of religion (too sadly inbred in Lebanese society) will be a third element of chaos: the influence of Al Qaeda extremism that breeds off violence.
So far the only leader of a political faction in the country to speak out against such an action as the storming of the Camp has been Hassan Nazrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, defamed in the West as a 'Terrorist Organization'.
I sit here and wonder yet again what we are getting wrong in this whole 'terrorist' business. In Gaza Haniya calls for a ceasefire, here Nazrallah calls for restraint, both in the light of humanitarian concerns. Both of these men head 'terrorist' organizations (although today CNN kindly added that Hamas and Hezbollah are both 'moderate terrorist organizations' whatever that means!) While Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora puppets some Bush remark about destroying the threat of terrorism by military action and Olmert insists that striking Gazans and killing an average of five Palestinians a day (the figure since mid-May) is in the protection of democracy and necessary to destroy terrorism.
People in the West should seriously ask if we have not totally lost the whole plot about what is and what is not terrorism. Because if you ask any one of the poor terrified refugees who are huddling in overcrowded homes and schools in Bedawi or Shatila or any of the other camps scattered around Lebanon what it is, they will give you an answer that is a whole lot more probable than any I hear the politicians or policy makers parroting in the media.
Fatah al-Islam is a splinter group of the Fatah movement but this does not mean it is a Palestinan lead group. This is obvious from the fact that the majority of the members of Fatah al-Islam are foreign nationals from Egypt, Saudi, Pakistan, Sudanvery few are actually Palestinian. They are a Sunni group and for this reason they were armed by the Sunni Siniora Government who feared the Shia group of Hezbollah more than an Al Qaeda influenced group in the country.
Hezbollah is a threat to the Lebanese Sunni and certain Christian groups' power. Israel failed to destroy the organization last year. Last month the Winograd Commission in Israel issued a damning report on the Israeli leadership in last year's war with Lebanon. It is said that a closed section of this file contained proof of complicity between Siniora and Israel during those 33 days of bloodshed. If this file had become public very few Lebanese would be able to justify the contents as everyone suffered during that Israeli war on Lebanon.
Suddenly the Tripoli crisis appears, seemingly from nowhere and since then the sole focus of the country is on the unfolding tragedy there and the fear that is being deliberately planted in Beirut along with the three bombs that have been strategically detonated in the city. There is scant expectation that the Siniora government will have to face any probing over the contents of a file even were it to be made public now.
There is a third militia inside the Nahr al-Bared Camp. Residents sheltering there tell of this third militia who will fire towards the Lebanese Army and then Fatah al-Islam during a cease-fire and ignite the shooting again No one knows for sure who these militia are but some say that this group is connected to the militia of Hariri.
If civil War breaks out, Hezbollah could well be the ones who lose because, however armed they are and trained, they are trained as a resistance group against Israeli invasion not as a civil army ready to fight and kill fellow Lebanese in the streets.
I can not take sides in this country as I am horrified at how deep hatred lives in the hearts of many Lebanese who have grown up scarred by the reality of the civil war and whose children are instilled with their views from an early age.
Up until last week when people asked me am I 'with Hezbollah or Signora' I always answered I am with no group who puts politics and religion above peace in their own country but this week my answer has become slightly more specific because one side has blatantly done just that and one group has called for restraint because of the human lives at risk inside the camp.
Who can support a government which accepts US Arms to attack a Palestinian camp inside which half the residents are still besieged? (The same 'gift' that Israel accepts every year and used last summer to wipe out half of this country).
And it's got nothing to do with Sunni or Shia this time. Sunnis inside the Camp are being sacrificed by their Sunni Government and the leader of the Shia community is calling for their protection.
In the end my thoughts have to return to the refugee camps whose small crowded streets I have been walking this past week, to the tragedy that are the lives of these peoples: refugees forced to be refugees forever.
Eliza Ernshire can be reached at email@example.com