Travel beyond tourism, visiting Palestinian refugee camp Bourj El Shamali in Lebanon
When I travel, I always like to unearth unsung spots, and most of the times they are beautiful places that just need some tourism boost. This, unfortunately, is not the case for this post’s topic.
Every region bears within their borders injustice and the dirty remains of a not-so-remote past, and so does Lebanon, especially the southern part of this amazing, tiny country. I’ve always believed travel writing was a mission, more than just a job, and this becomes an even apter definition in West Asia, where travel writers have the opportunity to go beyond brochure-like descriptions and perform their best skills of honest reporting.
Lebanon is a small country that bears so many idiosyncrasies, both geographical and social, that it should be a real tourist-magnet. Yet, here tourism is still a struggling field. Why? Foreigners are hardly lured in because this is one of those war-stricken nations the suffering of which is still very much vivid in our memory. Twenty-two years of Israeli occupation from 1978 to 2000, combined with 33 days of merciless bombing from the same Israeli army in 2006 are way too recent to fall in the scrap heap of history.
When I visited Bourj El Shamali Palestinian refugee camp near Sour (Tyre), I felt I was in the place where Palestine’s tragic history blends with Lebanese troubled past and present. The people I met in Bourj El Shamali are all descendants of the Palestinians who survived the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing carried out in 1948 by the Zionist militia in occupied Palestine, where natives were either slaughtered or expelled from their land.
Every May 5th Palestinians around the world commemorate the Nakba: next week will be its 64th anniversary, too recent a tragedy and piece of human history to be forgotten, and of which we still hold every detail.
At the end of 1947 the Tel Aviv’s Red House became headquarter of the Hagana, the main Zionist militia operating in Palestine, building where in March 1948 the Zionist leaders decided to put into practice the so-called Plan D, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine through the systematic expulsion of its natives. There are documents, there are names, plans and dates, carefully reported by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in his well-researched “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”, a book I recommend anyone to read as it highlights both the steps that brought about the expulsion and “the cognitive system that allowed the world to forget, and enabled the perpetrators to deny, the crime the Zionist movement committed against the Palestinian people in 1948”.
Israel expelled the natives from their land sending them to neighboring countries, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The mass expulsion took place as large-scale intimidation, bombarding villages and population centers, setting fire to homes, properties and goods, demolition and planting of mines to prevent any of the expelled from returning. Palestinians did try to fight back and defend their lands, but with a militia supported by the biggest powers of the time, they were obviously unsuccessful and desperate. It took Zionist leaders six months to complete the final mission they had in mind in order to impose a Jewish state in Palestine: more than half Palestinian population was uprooted (some 800,000 people), 531 villages destroyed, 11 built-up centers emptied of their inhabitants.
The main executors of the plan are all in Israel’s hall of fame: David Ben-Gurion, the undisputed leader of the Zionist movement, in whose house “all early and later chapters in the ethnic cleansing story were discussed and finalised”. Among the other executors are “Moshe Kalman, who cleansed the Safad area, and Moshe Carmel, who uprooted most of the Galilee. Yitzhak Rabin operated both in Lydd and Ramla as well as in the Greater Jerusalem area.” All men who went down in history as “heroes” of the so-called “state of Israel”.
As soon as I walked in the camp, I realized I was motioning towards a different world, a sort of parallel dimension to the reality I’m used to. “Our youth shouldn’t waste their time dreaming about becoming doctors, lawyers, writers, they will never manage to get an authorization to practice their activity, they will never be able to migrate abroad, they are not allowed in Lebanon and they are prevented from returning to their homeland”, told me Mahmoud Jouma’a, manager and administrator of NGO Beit Atfal Assumoud and pivotal figure in the camp itself.
I knew all this, but listening first-hand to the hard truth acquired a whole new shape. My “free” spirit now looked like a “spoilt-child-like” spirit. I stared at him speechless, observing his polite and calm manners, and finding deeply unfair what he had to say, yet the real reason why I couldn’t come up with any argument for debate was that I knew he was right. How could I dare suggesting to fight for their rights to have a better education when they are still fighting for their right to exist? Who better than him knows the situation Palestinian refugees face every single day?
What I do find utterly frustrating is that many people blindly accept the fact that Israel’s right to exist translates into Palestinian non-right to do the same. They have no right to have a life because they were expelled from their own hometown, prevented from returning, uprooted from their own society and widely ignored by the rest of the world.
The narrow alleys of Bourj El Shamali camp barely allow a motorbike per time, while cars fit only in the largest streets. The whole camp, housing some 19,000 refugees, looks like a huge neighborhood, more than a proper town. It was set up in 1948 to provide the Palestinian refugees from northern Palestinian regions of Hawla and Tiberias with a shelter. The main occupation among the camp’s inhabitants is in agriculture, mostly seasonal work at low daily wages. Poverty is widespread, infrastructure is near to non-existent, the drinking water and sewage system are yet to be settled by the UNRWA, in charge of the basics for the refugees, low availability of construction materials results in grim living and health conditions, and unemployment rates reach 65% for men and 90% for women. UNRWA runs two schools, but the absence of any kind of facility and resource makes it impossible for children and teenagers to reach a basic educational level in order to be accepted by any university, should the government allow this.
It took me a bit, but at the end I realized this was a place where dreaming is not allowed in.
Beit Atfal Assumoud NGO tries its best to make life easier for the Palestinians who, after more than 60 years, generation after generation, still are refugees. Medical care, social activities aimed at keeping kids and teenagers off the street, counselling and family therapy, special programs to help children with learning problems are only some of the duties Beit Atfal Assumoud’s staff takes on. Waiting for donations for their medical equipments and volunteers to help them, the NGO’s workers are mainly Palestinians from the same Bourj El Shamali camp.
On my stroll around its maze of narrow streets I was guarded by three young men “because you never know what can happen”. I carefully observed life passing by before my eyes, trying to absorbe as much as I could of this unknown, disquieting reality we only slightly hear of in Europe, never accurately enough to make us aware of the actual Palestinian daily struggle. Crumbling buildings, small shops, rudimentary bakeries from which their delicious traditional bread manakeesh released a homely smell of homemade food, kids playing and sobbing babies clinging onto their mothers’ neck, still unaware of their past and their future, was the scenery that unfolded as I went past. Those babies will be unaware still for a short moment, just about when their understanding faculties will permanently imbue their minds, because they will soon learn the hard way what they can and they cannot yearn for, and they will soon learn from their parents and grandparents’ passionate tales about the tragic history of their people, the calamity that fell upon them and their homeland. That’s right, even the kids know the name of their native village, the original name that the foreign occupiers have changed in a desperate attempt to erase Palestinian identity from earth, efforts that from 1948 up to now have been widely unsuccessful.
When I think of the absurdity of Palestinians’ situation today, of how unaware, and very much in denial, most of us are in Europe with respect to the plight of what a three-hour flight from Rome makes it a neighboring country, Malcolm X inevitably comes to my mind with his powerful quote: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
*I’ve taken many pictures around the camp, you can find them all on the Flickr set I devoted to Bourj El Shamali.