The heels of my shoes hit the dirty alleyways of the camp and I am instantly confronted with the harsh smell of filth. There is the awareness that the stench of death once filled these parts. This is Shatila refugee camp. To most of the outside world, a reminder of a massacre that once happened. A gravesite, a ghetto, a hub for outlaws and criminals. To the inhabitants of this camp, perhaps it is a life sentence. Perhaps it is the dying hope of a return to a home that once was. The old will die and the young will forget. Wasn’t this the plan for those who were exiled from their homes in Palestine? The old are dying, along with their frustration and memories of Palestine. The young, how do you expect the young to forget? Isn’t every minute of every day in a refugee camp enough of a constant reminder?
Shatila, the camp’s narrow alleyways, deteriorating conditions, electricity cables running over our heads, trash on the sides, corners that witnessed young men being massacred, every move a step closer to a tragedy to be told by those who grew up here. To my right passes a woman, an elderly woman, the mother of the young man killed in the corner I just passed. In her face, there was something that captivates without any stories being told or explanations given. Is it the experience of pain and loss beyond my human understanding? What is common here is not just a refugee status, it is misery, it is frustration; the silent scream of those who were forgotten.
Sabra and Shatila, it is the story of a 90-year-old man with a two weeks promise and massacre souvenirs. They told him it is two weeks in Lebanon and he will go back home. He tells me his story and asks, has it been two weeks yet? No, it hasn’t. It has been 70 years and while you have been cooped up within the walls of this camp, the situation moved from bad to worst. I stay silent, what is there to say? Between us there is the silent understanding, you will die without ever seeing it again. 70 years and counting, weeks upon weeks. How many two weeks has it been? The trip back from exile won’t be made anytime soon. And Palestine, it is frozen in time, waiting for those who left to return, untouched somewhere along the exile route. It is waiting for a simple cook from Acre to go back to his work, for his keys to open the doors to his home, for life to resume.
In your story, the misery of a broken nation did not stop there. I asked you about the Sabra and Shatila massacre but I was not prepared to hear what you had to say. I did not know what you have kept all these years. Perhaps I did not know the details, and maybe my brain could not comprehend how brutal it was. There on your small coffee table, you put the weapon that was used to massacre your friends. You kept it, for over 30 years. I take a look and I couldn’t begin to imagine what it was like. How did you find it? Was it left next to their bodies? Did you go out looking for them only to find them dead? They believed they could negotiate the safety of the camp, so they approached the forces with a peace proposal and a piece of white cloth. They never made it back. Why did you keep it for all these years? I wanted to ask. I didn’t. Whether I spared you the question or myself the answer, I do not know. Your frustration seeps through and it is contagious. What is left of you? For you? What is left of those who were sentenced to 70 years of being refugees?
My nation has been reduced to human trash. We are simply meant to be sustained, contained, but never returned. So comes the international aid, a humanitarian initiative by no other than those who stripped us of everything we owned. It comes preconditioned on our admission of defeat, on our acceptance of what cannot be logically accepted. Can one be grateful to what amounts to nothing compared to what has been lost?
In the camp, I do not prolong my stay. I exit unable to speak. I’m drawn inward by my thoughts and my shock. You have left me speechless. I wonder how many people have visited you, wanted to hear your story, wanted to record your pain. Are you sick of those who found another way to take what is yours? I leave knowing that I will probably never see you again. I leave because I do not belong there, because I am ashamed of my worries, of my concerns. They amount to nothing compared to your pain.
As I exit, my first thought is to think about millions of Palestinians who were fortunate enough to not end up in refugee camps. How is it that we allowed for this to continue? Did we forget about you or did we simply feel no responsibility towards a huge segment of the Palestinian population? Are we not more to blame than anyone else? So close to what happened, yet so far removed. What future state do we envision with at least one-third of the Palestinian population living in refugee camps struggling to meet their daily needs? What future generations do we expect to rise from the ghettos of refugee camps? With what resources do we expect to gain the strength to fight an occupation or to negotiate? Can we claim a unified leadership? A strategy? A vision that guides our future aspirations for a Palestinian state? Has our only long-lasting commitment been that to failure?
Months pass and I finally write this down. I am looking for a solution, for change and I find myself more disappointed in my nation than I am in anyone else. I cannot help but feel that our unfulfilled responsibility is huge. I wonder how we can expect others to invest in our problems when we, as Palestinians, haven’t thoroughly done so ourselves. Is it possible for our collective problem to be resolved without us truly realizing our own agency and our own responsibility towards a collective solution? Are we to wait for the morality of the world to kick in? Isn’t 70 years enough time spent waiting? To me, it seems, that we have externalized the problem and with that, we externalized our ability to reach the only viable solution. To the majority of us, Palestine exists in the land of “someday”. It exists in distant future aspirations that, at best, actualize in our dreams. Are these the symptoms of a nation that has given up? One that has learned to move on with life and to suppress the pain of its most treasured loss?