Chatila still haunted by the carnage

by Joelle Touma

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Other Articles by Joelle Touma
Liban: les trous de mémoire des manuels scolaires
Lebanon: the lapses of memory of the school manuals (english translation)
Des strings et pas de mâles sur une plage de Beyrouth
J-Strings and No Males on a Beirut Beach (english translation)

There are twelve Palestininan camps in Lebanon, and around 350 000 refugees taken a census of by the Unrwa. Even if they were born in Lebanon or have been living there for more than fifty years, Palestininans are treated like all foreigners, 73 trades are unaccessible to them and they have no access to public education. The Unrwa founded schools that insure their schooling. The camps have an extraterritoriality status, and the Lebanese authorities do not enter. Around ten armed political factions make the law. Lebanon refuses to improve the situation of Palestinian refugees in order not to give their stay a permanent status. On one hand, because of the economical problems their establishment could generate and, on the other hand, because of the confessionnal imbalance that would result. The Palestinians are in majority Sunnite Muslims. Thus the Christians are haunted by the fear of seing this fragile confessionnal balance ruined.

© Libération 2002 -2023

Twenty years later, the Palestinian refugees, from trying to manage to taking drugs, have little hope.

It's a waste ground closed with a gate. At the entrance of the Chatila camp, only this space invaded with wild herbs that grew on one of the collective graves is a reminder of the big massacre commited by the Christian Lebanese militias covered by the Israeli army which occupied Beirut then. Between 800 and 2 000 Palestinians perished. This happened twenty years ago, on september 16th, 1982.



Set in the South of the Lebanese Capital on a one kilometre square land rented by the Unrwa (agency created by the United Nations, in order to help refugees from Palestine), the Chatila camp is a forest of tall concrete buildings, separated by winding alleys. The refugees have built their houses on allocated plots. Because of the lack of space on the ground, storeys are gradually added to house the children, who start new families, or to rent out to Lebanese or Syrians. The Palestinian population would be today of only 8 000 over approximately 15 000 inhabitants. They arrived in 1948, at the creation of the State of Israel, and in 1967, when the Six-Days war took place. The new generation was born in this camp where they dream about a Palestine they never saw.

Mohammed Roudeina, 26 years old, lives in the camp with his sister. They have lost eleven members of their family in the massacre. He is one of the 23 survivors who have lodged a complaint against Ariel Sharon, then minister of Defence. In a drawer, he kept 1982 newspapers' clippings showing corpses of members of his family lying in front of their home's porch. Roudeina goes from total despair, where he sees his future as a «black chasm with no bottom», to the hope of running away from his life in the camp and to study in the United States. «For me, the 11th of september was very harmful, I think I do not have a chance anymore to go to America», he laments.



His neighbour, Mohammed Majzoub, is also 26 years old, but his family succeeded in running away at the beginning of the massacre. He is more carefree. «If we must fight to free Palestine, I am ready to do it, but to lament and to speculate all day long, no, it depresses me», he explains. Majzoub has a job. Drinking water being unavailable in the camp, a few persons have bought filters and sell sterilized water. Majzoub drives a small truck owned by the Lebanese man who is the owner of one of these purification systems. Every two days, he distributes water for 1 000 LBP (around 0,75 euro) for 20 litres and takes 60% of the price for himself. He has seven sisters and eight brothers, out of which two died during Lebanon's war. Nasri, one of his young brothers, plays football with Jabalia, the Chatila camp team. A Lebanese team wanted to recrute him but «he did not rise to the occasion, because drugs make him totally irresponsible», Majzoub tells us.

The «drug» of young refugees is made out of amphetamin they buy in pharmacies for 3 000 LBP (2 euros) for 100 pills, «it makes them violent, they hallucinate, fight and mutilate themselves», Majzoub explains. Indeed, in the alleys of Chatila, many unemployed young men have scars on their chests; all of them also have tattoos. There are many tattooists in the camp, and they propose designs going from naked female silhouettes to the effigy of Hezbollah's General Secretary.



In the evening, the family and a few neighbours meet at Abou Jamal's, Majzoub's father, a 1948 refugee, respected by the whole community. Around thirty children and grand-children sit on the floor to eat dinner. Only Abou Jamal is seated in an armchair; he drinks arak and tells his memories of Saint-Jean-d'Acre. His children listen to him respectfully, even if they already know these stories by heart. He has transmitted to them the desire to go back to Palestine. Abir, Majzoub's older sister who was wounded by a bullet during the massacre, says «even a small plot of Palestine would be okay, it would already be a country». Roudeina would never accept a Lebanese passport: «This would be the equivalent of losing our right to return» ; yet, this passport could be his ticket to leave. And if he was offered a financial compensation to stay in Lebanon? At this, Majzoub leaps: «Did you hear there was a compensation? I would accept. I feel fine in Beirut.».

Joelle Touma is the correspondent in Beirut of the French newspaper Libération and the Belgian newspaper Le Soir since september 2001. She is also a scriptwriter and is working on another film presently under production.

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