I never thought I would feel the degree of sadness I have experienced the last few days, during the clashes taking place in Ein El-Helweh camp. Some will respond that it is not the first time such conditions have erupted. And yes, we have become accustomed to the sound of bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and snipers. However, this time was different. It was longer…the weapons deadlier…the damage greater.
It started on Friday, the 7th of April, when I was supposed to enjoy my spring vacation, a break from the stress of teaching. I do not live in the camp, but very close, so what happens inside affects me and my neighbors as well. I can hear the sounds of the heavy fire. News reports said a battle had broken out between the Fatah movement and a mysterious extremist named Bilal Badr and his followers. Many people were fleeing the camp under the hail of the shelling; others were stuck in their homes, afraid of being hit by random shots. The Lebanese Army was on high alert at the entrances of the camp. In an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Lebanese Army agreed to stay out of the Palestinian camps, but we fear that if the fighting gets too out of hand, they will enter anyway, and then we will have another Nahr El-Bared (a camp in the north that was almost completely destroyed in a fight to rid it of extremist elements). The Lebanese media call Ein El-Helweh the “zone without laws,” but it is home to more than 100,000 people (about half of whom are Palestinian).
Sunday and Monday were the worst among the six days of the battle. I couldn’t sleep for two nights. Several shells from Ein El-Helweh hit areas outside the camp, wounding a child and two men. The entire city of Saida, surrounding the camp, was on lockdown, with patients transferred to other hospitals and schools closed. I was supposed to attend a workshop related to my work, but it wasn’t safe to leave my home. I also had an appointment for a doctor’s visit, but since the clinic was inside the camp (Palestinian doctors in Lebanon are not allowed to practice medicine outside the camps), it was impossible to go. Many homes and shops were destroyed as well, including my cousin’s house. Her house is no longer a home. She burst into tears when she saw the damage.
The street where the clashes were focused, normally packed, was empty. Mamdouh Sawi (65 years old) suffered a heart attack and died when he saw his home reduced to a pile of rubble. He had lived in this home since he left Palestine during the Nakba in 1948.
Mamdouh and other residents refused to leave their homes, staying until they were told about the agreement to evacuate the houses before another escalation. They then were forced to seek shelter in a local mosque and an UNRWA school—refugees again. UNRWA also provided mobile health clinics for children and people with chronic illnesses.
I felt under extreme stress as I shifted among social media pages searching for good news regarding a very bad situation. What made it worse were the insults about Palestinians some racist people posted on Twitter. That night, I tweeted this: “It’s 12:08 a.m. The fifth day of the clashes in Ein El-Helweh has already started.”
On Tuesday morning, silence prevailed after a harsh night. Still, I didn’t leave my home. At 2:44 p.m., the clashes resumed and continued all night until Wednesday dawn.
As I write this essay, it is 11 p.m. on the 12th of April. It is a calm night. Camp residents had returned to see their properties. The photos and videos I saw of the damage were really shocking.
We hope this will be the last clash. We are really tired of such conflicts. Palestinian refugees need to live in peace and dignity. We need a life with meaning. We want our basic human rights in the country in which we were born. I believe it is the fact that we have been deprived of these for so long, first by Israel and then by Lebanon, that has fed the growing power of militant groups. Poverty and unemployment pushes youngsters to drop out of school and join such militant groups to be paid a monthly wage.
Camp for us is the place that preserves our Palestinian culture and heritage. It is the place where our ancestors first dwelled after the Nakba in 1948. Thus, the camp is precious to most Palestinians who live there. And now it is under threat. During the battle, one of the displaced boys posted on Facebook, saying: “When they migrate, displaced people are asked to put everything that is special to them in a bag. But how can I put this camp in a bag?”
Postscript: Calm is slowly returning to Ein El-Helweh. A Palestinian joint force has dismantled Badr’s “security zone” in the camp, and people are returning to their homes. However, Badr remains at large, and we will wonder when this all will be repeated…
This post was originally published by the WeAreNotNumbers campaign here on April 14, 2017.