In the misery that is now Lebanon it is the lowest who take the blame and the Palestinian refugees are the lowest in the pecking order.
“They see us all as criminals” Caoimhe Butterly writing from Baddawi Refugee Camp, Live from Lebanon, 22 June 2007
Standing at the entrance to Nahr al-Bared Camp a week ago in the still, oppressive heat waiting with Fatme for her sister and her nieces to be evacuated, we watched as two large army trucks emerged from the camp. Though the backs of the trucks were covered with tarpaulin and soldiers forbade the assembled journalists from filming, as the trucks roared by we could see that each contained about thirty men and boys, handcuffed, some blindfolded, most with their heads bent down towards their laps. One youth, however, sat with his head held high, staring back at the camp, with a tasseled kuffiya draped around his shoulders. His small act of defiance and pride, of rejecting the criminalization of his people and struggle, reduced Khadija, who stood next to me, to tears as she said “I am so exhausted, I feel burnt inside, as if all beauty is gone from my life, but seeing him makes me understand that I can’t despair, that I have to stay strong — to rebuild our camp and our lives.”
Khadija has participated in a series of actions we’ve organized over the past month of the siege with friends from Baddawi and Nahr al-Bared — a symbolic die-in at the entrance to the camp, a larger demonstration and a series of press conferences highlighting the media ban and civilian death toll and attempting to put pressure on the army to allow greater access to Nahr al-Bared for ambulance services and for the distribution of humanitarian relief. As she participated in the die-in, carrying a placard with the name of a 23-year-old man who had bled to death from apparently treatable wounds, Khadija challenged an older soldier who arrived with others to forcefully make us leave — “Do you have children? Try to feel what it is like for us to stand here — knowing that our family and friends are still in the camp, feeling this road shudder underneath us as the shelling continues, not knowing who will die, today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow.”
Khadija stood next to Fatme, her arm around her shoulders, blocked from walking back into their camp and homes by five soldiers and a coil of barbed wire. When Fatme’s sister finally emerged we barely caught a glimpse of her pale, graceful face, smiling reassuredly at Fatme, before the bus in which she and a small group of women, children and the elderly were evacuated in, sped off towards Baddawi. We followed them by car and arrived back to Baddawi as they disembarked the bus into the waiting, frantic, embraces of family members waiting for them outside the Red Crescent Hospital. Fatme held her arms around her nieces, refusing to let them go, as if releasing them from the warmth and temporary refuge of her embrace would return her, and them, to the throbbing panic of the past three weeks, of her watching the scenes of the shelling on television, or them living it in the confines of an underground shelter, of dead telephone lines and the smell of death and the names of the latest confirmed dead scripted onto a banner hung in the main street in Baddawi.
Later as we crowded into the humid classroom where over twenty adults and children from Fatme’s extended family are sleeping her sister, Muna and her daughters described the conditions in the camp and the humiliation of the rough strip search, by women employed by the army, they were subjected to before being allowed to leave the camp. “I felt as though they see us all as criminals — that their fear makes them hate us.” Muna described screaming as all of the men and boys in their group were separated from the women, handcuffed, blindfolded and made to stand up against a wall. Muna’s 15-year-old son, Walid, was amongst the group and as they were being lined up Muna panicked, and struggled to reach him, before being dragged back by her daughters. “We have endured the last month of indiscriminate shelling, siege, watching civilians bleed to death because the army and ambulance services take hours to co-ordinate the entry of ambulances into the camp, having to watch our children go thirsty and hungry, surrounded by the smell of death. We had respect for the Lebanese army before — we even felt sorry for them, because they were under-armed and weak — but now they are behaving badly. How did I know that my son wasn’t in danger when I saw him up against a wall, after what we have lived through during this war?” Walid was held in military detention for two days before being released.
One of Fatme’s nieces, Radwan, is participating in a video, audio and written documentation and archiving collective we’ve initiated in Baddawi with ten women and men from Nahr al-Bared. Working together with local NGOs and popular committees we’ve been documenting the testimonies of those fleeing the camp, collecting reports of civilian deaths — amongst them an incident in which soldiers and/or militiamen opened fire on a bus of civilians fleeing the camp as it drove towards a checkpoint, killing the driver and a pregnant woman — and, over the past two weeks, the testimonies of returning detainees — those detained at Qubbeh military base in Tripoli, in the underground maze at the Yarzeh headquarters of the Ministry of Defense and those detained at random checkpoints.
The testimonies we’ve gathered, as well as those conducted by both national and international human rights organizations point to the abuse, beatings and — increasingly — torture of Palestinian detainees as being of a systematic nature. The patterns that have emerged in the interviews indicate both severe physical and psychological abuse — in a number of cases detainees have been told that they will be killed or tortured and to choose their preferred way to die. All detainees have reported being hooded or blindfolded during the beatings and handcuffed and manacled in pressure positions for days without relief. The majority of detentions have lasted for one to nine days and during that time detainees are often denied access to medical care, adequate food and drinking water. In a few cases detainees report Internal Security Forces (ISF) and local militia participation in the beatings. In two cases that we’ve documented released detainees testified as to having been suspended from chains attached to their handcuffed hands behind them. All detainees that we have met report being taunted and verbally abused and many say that soldiers verbally degraded their wives, daughters and mothers, threatening to rape them if detainees did not “confess.” There are up to four mentally disabled men being detained. There are also at least two reports of sexual abuse of male detainees.
Boys as young as fourteen years old have being held at Qubbeh and last night I interviewed 16-year-old Samer and Abu Mahmoud, his father, who were both detained and beaten at Yarzeh. We met in the courtyard of a converted playschool in which over thirty displaced families from Nahr al-Bared are sleeping. Children ran up and down the halls, past brightly-coloured murals of Palestine, re-enacting their flight from the camp — clutching the hands of their younger siblings, stumbling, while other children mimicked the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Watching them I commented on the tragedy of yet another generation of Palestinians experiencing the humiliation of exile and dispossession — of a camp built stone by stone by the exiled of the Nakba (1948 catastrophe), and Naksa (1967 catastrophe) and of Tel al-Zataar reduced to rubble, on the hypocrisy of the government, using slogans of solidarity and brotherhood in television advertisements while the indiscriminate shelling of a densely-populated civilian refugee camp, the historic and continuing denial of the most basic of civil rights and the present detentions and abuse continues.
Abu Mahmoud nodded in weary agreement with my rant before showing me the bruises and cuts on his forearms as he described his days in detention. “The beatings were severe, but bearable — but it was the insults, the humiliation of being called a dog, an animal, having my wife and daughters verbally degraded to me, that was the real assault. We slept in a corridor in the maze, many of us, piled on top of each other on the cold floor. We were kicked or punched constantly by passing soldiers — if we whispered to each other we were slapped, if during the day we raised our heads even a little bit we were slapped. When we needed to use the toilet they swore at us and would drag us to the toilet, punching or slapping us,” Abu Mahmoud said as he sat next to his son and wife. “I’ve never felt so disrespected. I’m a religious man and a worker, not a criminal — but some of the soldiers, and the Lebanese people have stopped seeing the difference. To be from Nahr al-Bared is now a crime in itself. A crime that will ensure that my sons will grow up with no sense of security or protection — that they can be detained and beaten at any time.”
Last week we organized a press conference in Baddawi Camp with representatives from Human Rights Watch, Shahid, the General Union of Palestinian Women and other organizations. In the press conference we called for an end to a culture of impunity by the Lebanese army and security forces. We condemned the beatings in detention of detainees and called for clear guidelines to be set down, in regulation with domestic and international law, for the detention and interrogation of detainees and called for the protection of minors in detention at Qubbeh and Yarzeh. We called for an end to the collective punishment of and racist attacks aimed at Palestinians across Lebanon and presented large photos of the wounds of a 16-year-old, detained and beaten by a group of soldiers at three different locations, beginning at a checkpoint in the village of Abdi. Pulled of a bus after inspecting soldiers saw his Palestinian ID, he was beaten to near unconsciousness before being refused treatment at a military clinic. The press conference was attended by all of the local Lebanese television stations and wires bar one and the majority of the newspapers. In the end it was broadcasted by Aljazeera International and Arabic but by none of the Lebanese channels. One newspaper, one of the two Lebanese papers that has to date covered the issue of the abuse of the detainees, al-Akhbar, ran a story on it, as well as a profile of a 16-year-old who was detained and severely beaten.
The increasing polarization and unquestioning support of the army in Lebanon in the last weeks, the hypocrisy of the official discourse and its criminalization of those who have chosen to stay in the camp, or are unable to evacuate themselves (there are still estimated hundreds of disabled people, elderly people and children amongst the remaining up to 3,000 camp residents) is reflected in the Lebanese media. Although there has been an official media ban in place since the beginning of the siege, with no journalists allowed access into Nahr al-Bared, there is also a degree of self-censorship in many journalists’ refusal to attempt to run with this, or other stories in which there is clear abuse of power by some of the army and security services. Condemning the siege and the lack of precautions in terms of safe-guarding civilian life brings forth the sort of homogenized responses one would expect in parts of North America — television coverage of what families we have contact with in Nahr al-Bared describe as indiscriminate shelling are narrated over with references to “terrorists being targeted,” pro-army demonstrations take place over the weekends in which thousands of Lebanese flags are waved excitedly and the majority of Lebanese media outlets still are not accurately reporting the official civilian death toll.
Hussein is a thirty-year-old father of three. Released from Yarzeh last week after nine days in detention, he points to a Lebanese flag on the window of a nearby taxi and says that “There is no place for us, as Palestinians, in Lebanon. They have shown us that by humiliating us, insulting us, reminding us that we have no rights, that we are not equals in their eyes.” Hussein was held first in Qubbeh, then in Yarzeh. “Some of the soldiers were kind to us — we could feel that they weren’t comfortable seeing the conditions we were being held in, and we said that we felt sorry for the soldiers who were killed, but that we had nothing to do with their deaths.” Over seventy soldiers have been killed over the past month, the majority of them young, from poor villages in the north and many more wounded or maimed.
“The soldiers who beat us though, they had no mercy. To them there was no difference between us and Fatah al-Islam — I explained to them that I’m a communist, that I sometimes even drink a bit of alcohol, that I like music and chatting on the net — but it didn’t change their attitude towards me.” Hussein says that he was subjected to sleep deprivation for up to 36 hours, made to stand in the same position and slapped if he dozed off. He described being hoisted off the ground by chains attached to his handcuffed hands until he passed out from the pain, to be revived with buckets of cold water. His back and arms are marked with large bruises and his wrists scarred from the handcuffs.
Ibrahim is a 54-year-old mentally disabled Nahr al-Bared resident who was arrested while trying to evacuate the camp. For eight days his family had no news of him until he limped into Baddawi five days ago. He had been beaten on the soles of his feet and the open wounds had become infected. His legs and back and forehead are bruised. When I visited his family in the classroom where they are sleeping, Ibrahim was curled up on a mattress on the floor, smoking cigarette after cigarette with shaking hands. His sister, Manal, sat next to him, stroking his head. “This is all like a bad dream,” she said. “One day we were living peacefully in our camp, having good social and business relationships with Lebanese villages around the camp, the next day we wake up to shelling and terror and, now, the understanding that we are hated here. It is a humiliation. In Palestine our opponent is clear, but here? We don’t hate the army — this is not our battle. It is not a battle to win our right to return, or to have some rights in Lebanon, so it is not our battle. But to know that we are seen as criminals, in a country which is our home until we can return to Palestine, this is humiliating.”
A few nights ago after a group of elderly people were evacuated from the camp, I watched as an old couple sat down on the steps of the hospital to wait. Their grown children had chosen to stay in Nahr al-Bared for fear of the detention and abuse of men and boys who evacuated themselves. The elderly couple had no family in Baddawi and all the schools and garages and NGOs housing displaced families were full. We left on a water distribution run and returned hours later to find the same couple, clutching their plastic bags of hastily gathered clothes and mementos, still waiting. It was almost sunrise by the time we found them somewhere to sleep. The inhabitants of Nahr al-Bared, scattered across Lebanon, are waiting — a return to their camp, a burying of their dead, an investigation into abuses, a rebuilding of the camp and their lives. But any pretence of certainty or security has been shattered and the rebuilding of that will take far longer than that of Nahr al-Bared itself.
All names of people referred to in this article have been changed.
Caoimhe Butterly is an Irish activist who has been living and working on community projects in A’ita al-Chaab, in the south of Lebanon since last year’s war. She has been in Baddawi Refugee Camp for the past month and can be contacted at 0096170824084 or at sahara78 AT hotmail.co.uk.