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Feature. Thirty-five years after the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the injustices continue daily. But displaced Palestinians still hold out for a return to their homeland.

Sabra and Shatila: ‘Lest we forget’

Nobody knows how to describe the current state of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The situation has become miserable, regardless of the historical reasons that caused it. The memories bring us back 70 years when the Zionist massacres in 1947-48 forced Palestinians to flee their homeland, leaving behind their houses and assets, fearing for their children and their families.

The Palestinian landowners and rightful residents became refugees living in camps, both near and far away from their native country, replaced by immigrants, citizens of other countries who have occupied their homes and lands, killed men and women, destroyed stones, and cut trees. All this for a sinister promise which is the Balfour Declaration, issued 100 years ago. A promise issued by colonial Great Britain to surrender the Palestinian land to the Zionist entity and to those who had never owned anything.

The Palestinians have not forgiven and will never forgive that promise. As they will never forget their right to return to their homeland, despite the misery, poverty, deprivation and injustice experienced in their life as refugees.

Life in the camps

Most homes are like seamless tombs, without air, running water, sunlight or electricity. They are unsuitable for human life, in many cases not even good enough for animals. Life in the camps is different from normal life. The alleys are very narrow and visitors are welcome with a tangle of over-exposed electric power cables and water pipes, which every winter cause the deaths of many people when lightning strikes.

People of various ethnicities live in the camps: Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Indians, Kurds and many others. Among the crowd, there are drug addicts and unemployed people, vendors, barbers, doctors, engineers, nurses and teachers.

The camp is a place unlike anywhere else on earth; it is a receptacle of problems, ignorance, social and psychological illness, and violence and aggression. In the camps, the believer and atheist coexist, as well as the radical and the layman. Despite all this, the visitor will be welcomed, will find smiles and hospitality. The camp needs support and solidarity, so it always welcomes visitors.

The camps were established by Lebanon in 1948, and it is still the same, despite the increase in population. The fourth generation of refugees still share the dwellings in the same camps. Between narrow lanes and overcrowded houses, it is dark even in the middle of the day, and buildings grow vertically without any foundation and without any urban planning.

Vertical construction has become the solution to the particular problem of population growth because of the impossibility of having more land, particularly after the Lebanese government decided to forbid Palestinians the right to buy a home, an unjust decision which goes against human rights and every religious proscription. In addition, the Lebanese government rejected the proposal to allocate alternative lands to the camps destroyed by Israel (the Nabatiyeh camp in 1971) and those destroyed during the civil war led by the isolationist Christian forces (Tal al-Zaatar and Jeser al-Basha in 1976).

The war in Syria had a negative impact on the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which now host tens of thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees forced to leave Syria; in the Burj el Barajneh camp near Beirut, the number of Syrian residents stands now at 24,000 people — a figure that exceeds the number of Palestinians already held there. The situation is not better in Shatila: The number of Palestinians is below the number of Syrians and other Arab, Asian and African citizens; only 25-30 percent of the refugees are Palestinians.

Decades of injustice

Since the time the states were founded in 1948, the camps have gone through several phases. Initially made up of family tents, thanks to the UNRWA, one room dwellings were built. Until 1970, the refugees were subjected to the Lebanese security authorities, which practiced all forms of injustice and oppression against the Palestinians; this stage ended with the Palestinian Revolution and the entry of the OPP into the camps, which freed them from the Lebanese authority; it was the golden stage for the camps and for all Palestinians living in Lebanon.

In this second phase, the camps became hotbeds of revolutionary patriotism and a human reservoir providing men and teens to all the revolutionary organizations. In this era, some improvement of living conditions was also achieved; the sheet metal and zinc roofs were replaced by concrete roofs.

The Palestinians finally had access to houses worthy of the name. Until then it had been forbidden to modernize and repair dwellings. The third phase of the camps began when the PLO and its military forces left Lebanon in 1982 as a result of the war sparked by Israel and the agreement signed between the PLO, the Lebanese government and the U.S. administration, under the auspices of an international protection pact for the camps, left weaponless and without fighters.

The situation worsened again. In the second half of September 1982, the horrific massacre of Sabra and Shatila was perpetrated by Christian far-right extremist and terrorist militias, under the supervision and care of the Israeli army, which, under the command of Ariel Sharon, occupied Beirut and other areas of Lebanon.

And after the massacre, the refugee camps near Beirut and southern Lebanon suffered under the Lebanese civil wars, which have caused deaths and destruction of houses. The dwellings were then rebuilt again, to be inhabited by new generations of refugees.

Why stay?

Staying in the camps despite the miserable situation is not a “patriotic choice” for Palestinians, because the Palestinians in the camps have firmly held their determination to claim their right to return home and have retained the identity and proud struggle of their ancestors and the martyrs, who have died for their right to return.

Their determination is strong, though some of the young people live in a desperate state, stemming from the difficult living conditions and the discrimination against them. They are forbidden to work in many professions, including as physicians, engineers and pharmacists.

There are 37 professions that Palestinians cannot work in Lebanon. This category of young Palestinians looks out to Europe, the United States and Canada as immigration destinations to escape misery and oppression. But this group continues to insist on its right to return.

Many of the Palestinian children who had left the camps in Lebanon after obtaining a citizenship that allows them to visit their homeland, go to their ancestral villages to know the home of their ancestors. Every Palestinian brings their homeland wherever they go.

The frustration experienced by the children of the camps has many causes, the most important of which are perhaps the unjust laws, the disastrous housing situation and the decline of the UNRWA services in all sectors, such as health, education, social, health and care. On top of it, there are the growing political divergences among Palestinians.

Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that Palestinian civil institutions and some of the initiatives of young people help alleviate suffering, by providing assistance and job opportunities, and by organizing educational activities for children, young people and women. The first cause of this situation is the Israeli occupation and the inability of the international community to implement its resolutions regarding the Palestinian cause.

Remembering the massacre

The Shatila camp, which suffered a terrible massacre 35 years ago, is preparing to receive the Italian delegation of the committee “Lest we forget the Sabra and Shatila massacre,” to commemorate the anniversary. This has been customary for 16 years, thanks to the founder of the committee Stefano Chiarini, a manifesto journalist who has supported the struggle of the oppressed peoples. His writings and articles have been a more effective weapon than all weapons and slogans.

During the commemoration, how can we not remember the effort and responsibility of those who continued the work of Chiarini in the committee and the journalist Maurizio Mussolino, who disappeared a year ago? We, as well as the children of the camps in Lebanon, are fully confident that the members of the committee will continue on their way reporting the horror of the massacre around the world. They have reminded the lovers of justice, peace and freedom and human rights that murder criminals must be punished, and that the families of victims of the massacre are sustained in the.

Italians have the right to be proud of their role in this solidarity initiative, each year they send the largest foreign delegation. The camps in Lebanon, north and south of Beirut, are waiting their arrival with love — there is no other word to say it — as every year.

Kassem Aina is general director of Alsumud Bait Atfal Association, a partner of “Lest we forget the Sabra and Shatila massacre.” Translation from the Arabic by Bassam Saleh.

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