by Carolina Montenegro*, in Beirut
Shatilla is a smell, which goes through your nose and impregnates clothes. You can’t get it out of your head, it lives in a corner until then unknown of the memory.
Shatilla is a field of Palestinian refugees in Southern Beirut, Lebanon. For 60 years, it has been housing thousands of families who fled from Israel after the invasion of Palestinian territories. In 1982, the field became international headline and was the scene of a massacre in which nearly 2,000 people were killed by Phalange troops (right Christians) during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon. Most were civilians, women and children.
The journalist and correspondent of British newspaper “Independent”, Robert Fisk, describes the episode in his book “Poor Nation”: The stench in Shatilla causes nausea. Even with the thicker sheets, we felt the smell. After a few minutes, we started to smell like the dead. They were everywhere, in the street, in alleys, backyards and in destroyed rooms”.
Today, the smell that remains is from trash cans, spread to all sides, thrown in the streets, serving as food for goats. Children play in the mud, there’s no asphalt, no light or water. The buildings are in ruins. Within the small apartments, often, families of eight people share one room. Shatilla smells like poverty, abandonment.
According to UNRWA (the UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees), 12,235 Palestinians live in the field today. “The environmental and health conditions are extremely bad, with overcrowded housing and sewage in the open”.
The agency maintains two health centers and two schools in Shatilla. Several other NGOs also operate in the field, including the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Norwegian Agency for Assistance. They provide medical care, daycare and lending and financing services to promote entrepreneurship and purchase of real estate.
The assistance, however, falls far short of need. One of the biggest barriers is the labor laws of Lebanon, which prevents Palestinians to work in more than 20 industries. “There’s a law based on reciprocity. Brazilian dentists may work in Lebanon because Lebanon can be dentists in Brazil, but this does not apply to Palestinians who do not have their own state”, said Hoda El-Turk, spokeswoman for UNRWA in Lebanon.
“There’s no lack of jobs, I do freelance jobs since I was 15 as electrician, plumber, bricklayer, farmer. But the jobs are almost always temporary and pay very low wages”, says a 27-year-old Palestinian refugee, I will call Ali Saad.
Saad says he does not think much about the future. “I thought about leaving here, improving my life, as some do, and leave Shatilla, even the country. But today I have no more of this kind of ambition or expectation, I realized I can only live one day after the other”, he explains. He stopped studying to work at age 14 and make come true the dream of having a place for himself.
“It took me four years to build my house. I raised the walls myself and hired a couple acquaintances to help me with the work, because I worked 10 hours a day, at the time”, he explains. Today, Saad has his own apartment in Shatilla, with no painted walls and little furniture. He used to divide a room with six other family members.
He learned English with the help of foreign volunteer teachers of an NGO. “Most of the other students were not very interested, but I love the language and I would spend almost six hours a day to study English”, says Saad.
Outgoing and playful, he made fast friends with most of teachers and today he collects friends in various parts of the world: a Brazilian man, an Italian couple and a German university student. Saad maintains contact with them through the Internet. After learning English, he bought a computer and signed up on Facebook (a social network).
The living conditions in refugee camps in the country today is regarded as the most precarious in the region, according to international human rights defender NGO Human Rights Watch. “Extreme poverty and underemployment prevail”, warns the institution’s senior analyst in Beirut, Nadim Houry.
The matter was also the subject of a report earlier this year of the International Crisis Group, one of the most renowned international think-thank for the prevention of conflicts, and a study released by McGill University, Canada, with the title: “Building a Better Relationship: Palestinian refugees, Lebanon and the Role of International Community”.
The document highlights the recent policies established by the Lebanese government in partnership with UNRWA to try to improve the living conditions in the camps. “In recent years, the official policies in Lebanon for Palestinian refugees have undergone big changes. Increasingly, the Lebanese government has expressed its support to improve the social and economic conditions of refugees”, says the text.
As an example, the study cites the launch of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) in 2005 to promote reforms in areas such as employment and civil registry. “The government has also acted as a crucial partner of UNRWA in the reconstruction of the camp in Nahr Al-Barid (destroyed in 2007 during a conflict between the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Lebanese Shiite group Fatah Al-Islam)”, it adds.
I asked Assad if he ever noticed any change in daily life in Shatilla in recent years. He replied that everything remains the same. “It can’t get worse than it is, even to improve there’s always some damage done before”, he says pointing to pieces of concrete thrown in the alleys between the buildings. The few cement roads were destroyed for the construction of a sewage system in the underground of the region. The work funded by the European Union should be ready in two years. Meanwhile, pedestrians stumble in holes and pieces of stones dropped by the wayside.
* Refugees United Special Reporter