Over the course of 4 months of fighting, the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp (home to 25,000 people) was heavily bombed and its infrastructure destroyed. The Lebanese Army declared victory mid-September, but the camp’s residents (and so far only 200 families) weren’t allowed to return until October 9. They returned to mass devastation; entire neighborhoods are no longer recognizable. Not all the houses were destroyed; those that remain standing were vandalized, looted and burnt.
Without protection, and without a state to appeal to or a government to care for them, the Palestinians of Nahr el Bared are restarting life from nothing.
This, then, is what it means to be without protection:That you will be held responsible for events you have no control over, that you will be blamed for these events, punished for them, without exception. That you will be forced to leave your home at a moment’s notice, without time to gather your photographs or your
savings, without time to pack your grandmother’s medicines or your son’s eyeglasses. That you will leave behind your store, your work,your paying employment, and that when you try to find new work, you won’t be hired, because you will be told it’s your fault in the first place.
This, then, is what it means to be without protection: That your children will spend six months sleeping on the floor of a school, wracked by nightmares, and that while they sleep groups of men in cars will circle the school shouting insults and threats, and throwing rocks and garbage into the school. That your children will wait hours to use a shower in the summer; months later, they will wait weeks while you try to find winter clothes and blankets. That you will spend hours every day waiting in line for charity, for medicines that never arrive.
This, then, is what it means to be without protection: That when you return to your neighborhood, you no longer have water, electricity or sewage facilities. That when you are allowed back to your house, you will find graffiti sprayed onto the walls of your living room, describing on which date your refrigerator was stolen, and on which date they came back to kick over your toilet and strip your kitchen. In your children’s bedroom, you will find graffiti calling you a pig or a dog, threats of death to your family, pledges to repeat civil war-style massacres. In the entrance of your house, the graffiti tells you to go back home, back to a Palestine you never knew, and can never see. This, then, is what it means to be without protection: That you will be kicked out of your home at any time by anyone for any reason and that when – if – you are allowed to return, you will return to find you home destroyed or vandalized beyond recognition, and be told to be grateful you were allowed to return at all.
Dear Mr. Siniora,
I write to you as a Lebanese citizen with pressing concerns. Today, on the 27th of October 2007, I, along with a group of ten AUB students, made the journey north to Nahr el Bared. We went there with the purpose of carrying out a clean-up campaign for the homes of returning refugees. What we found in the homes made our heads spin.
The houses we worked in were located in the so-called new camp. They were mostly villas with three or more bedrooms. Evidently, they were spaces that not so long ago housed large families. We found on the floors tiny Reebok shoes and dolls and toys. We found gardens and we found orange trees. But the little reebok shoes were torn and weathered, the dolls had disembodied heads and limbs, the gardens were not green and the orange trees did not bear oranges. We found mountains of rubble where there should have been refrigerators. We found harrowingly blank spaces, Mr. Siniora, where there should have been stoves, tables, beds and sofas. We found that the walls of the children rooms were covered with anti-Palestinian slurs and imprecations so vile that I cannot reproduce them on paper. When we were at the gates of the camp, we were told that cameras would not be allowed into the camp and we were searched scrupulously for them. I did not understand why this was at first, but now I do, because now I am feeling disillusioned and angry and I know that had the rest of the world seen the images that my peers and I saw today, the rest of the world would feel disillusioned and angry, too.
Mr. Siniora, I would like to know why it is that mass looting and mass vandalism has been allowed to take place under the nose of an army that the country has for the last four months uniformly rallied behind. I would like to know this because I was one of the millions who stood in Martyr’s square on the 14th of March 2005 calling for a sovereign, democratic Lebanon. I was one of the millions who demanded democracy, and democracy as I know it means that all those that are under the rule of government be treated equally and fairly. What my peers and I have witnessed today defeats that very notion. The Palestinians of Nahr el Bared–that we who claim to be democratic have the responsibility to protect–have been stripped of their wealth and, more importantly, their dignity for something that they were never responsible for. And you, Mr. Siniora, were the first to say this. What happened to the Palestinian-Lebanese brotherhood that you championed in your letter to the Palestinian community on the first week of the Nahr El Bared impasse? What happened to democracy? I did not see any of it today and I am deeply disheartened because I truly believed we would become a democracy on the 14th of March, 2005 when a nation was supposed to have been born. The beyond palpable opression of the Palestinian community in Nahr el Bared has been done in my name as a Lebanese citizen and that is what distresses me the most.
Mr. Siniora, this is not an attack on the government or on the army. To me, the war in Nahr el Bared is a nebulous haze; its onset, its protracted ending and everything in between raises many questions in my head and I will not broach the topic. What I know is what I saw today and it has disturbed me beyond belief. Thus, I ask you, as a citizen asking a public servant, to look into the current treatment of refugees and end the oppression in Nahr el Bared. I ask that you bring to us the democracy that you have promised us.