Shatila Camp: A small land that cannot contain the sorrows of its people
Al Moatassem Khalaf, Palestinian Syrian journalist
We’ve arrived. I think.
“We’re not there quite yet”, said Mahmoud Hashim, as we move through the streets of Sabra towards the edges of Shatila Camp, where the world of Beirut that is open to limitless possibilities becomes a narrow land of suffocation…
Quietly, my view changes from the sky of Beirut to that of Shatila Camp. Tight buildings take away the fear and suddenness of death, with dark mossy spots that reek of damp.
A smell coats the mouth just as you discover the camp has its own bitter taste, one derived from a long experience of death and hard living. It’s a taste that takes you through the long history of the camp. A taste that is the foundation for its diverse identity – a narrow land that combines people of different nationalities and identities, each trying to survive.
You do not need proof that you’re in one of the smallest of the twelve Palestinian camps in Lebanon. According to the census conducted by the LPDC, the Central Administration of Statistics, and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2017, Shatila’s one square kilometer holds around 14,000 people.
You never understand how they could live in such a packed jam, but Mahmoud explains, “The camp has almost the highest density because it was affected by political events, wars, and revolutions that took place in recent years. Palestinian poured in from Syria, along with Syrian workers, and other nationalities including Egyptians, Bengalis, and Sudanese, which led to building higher floors to meet demand”.
The buildings stacked above one another are enough proof for you to realize that calling Shatila Camp a shelter for the poor is a luxury. The camp has turned into a destination for all those wanting to create their little world that does not fit all of Beirut’s possibilities; a tiny world that stands on the edge of the camp, creating an extraordinary state of living, of life, and of adaptation that requires an immense ability to overcome death, leaving the world of Beirut behind and entering the world where people live off so little.
Out of this comes the story of the camp whose people are impacted by political events in Lebanon, placing greater pressure on many levels than at any time before the collapse of the nation.
In particular, the economic collapse started to limit their lives within ever smaller boxes. Yet, according to Mahmoud Hashim, this change is not the most dangerous threat, as the people of the camp have been suffering from poverty for years.
However, poverty is now taking a turn for the worse – today, people cannot secure basic needs. We’re talking here about some skipping meals while other families cut out foods that were once considered basics.
In the camp, food has become of a single color, being repeated to ensure mere survival. He then looked at me directly and said: “But no one dies of hunger”.
“This is not the concern”, said Laila, with us on our journey through the streets. “Our fear is not, as people might think, of hunger”. She smiled and pulled me towards a house where Mohamed Al Oudah lives. The house comprises one room, and he calls it the saloon – a space which will turn once again to become his bedroom after we leave.
“A small room where I squeeze my back against the back of the sofa to allow more room for my three children to sit around me”, as he describes the scene. What separates us from the kitchen is a curtain with greenish damp spots – it is impossible now to know its original color. The curtain’s yellow patterns have lost their vibrance. At best, this windowless room reminds you of suffocation. When you take a couple of quick breaths, you feel as if you’re stealing someone else’s share of air.
Mohamed sits before me like the ghost of a man who used to live here. He crosses his arms and answers my questions about what the camp hides: “I know the world thinks that poverty is what rules our lives. But it does not particularly scare us. What truly scares us is what drugs do to the young people of the camp. We fear for our children’s safety – from the drug addicts and the spread of narcotics in the camp. The primary goal of our day indeed is to secure a living, but what we truly hope to end is the spread of narcotics among young people in the camp, as it adds more pressure on us and imposes on us a lifestyle full of fear and worry”.
I asked him what he did to overcome the impact of drugs on his life. “I simply do not go out. I limit my life and the lives of my children to this room. I only go out when it’s necessary, and I watch my children when they play outside. The supply of drugs has been reduced, but it’s not over. Despite the collapse, it never got affected significantly.”, he replied.
“There is an organized plan to destroy the camp from within, and having no unified authority that can control things only makes it more complicated. You can see the great impact of that absence in people’s fears”, Mahmoud Hashim says.
With heavy eyes, Mohamed looks at the ground, uttering words that disappear in the air: “This place is no longer a shelter for the poor. It was before the collapse in Lebanon, but now it turned into a place to which all those who have no more hope of survival flee. Shatila is the final destination for people who cannot afford the luxury of life. We live one day at a time, without hope or purpose. We know there’s no hope here. This is our reality and will continue to be so. The only thing that changes is how much worse things can become. So do not expect us to talk about a way out without getting very desperate about how such a way out would look. There are several nationalities here. What would make a Syrian, Bengali, and Sudanese live in the camp? It’s not just low prices. It’s because they know we have a verbal contract to which we all agreed: that this land is the final refuge after losing all attempts at a better life”.
“I just hope electricity does not go out”, Mohamed laughed and said wistfully, pointing at a small fan that’s on the verge of collapse, spinning slowly, barely blowing the thin air. “It’s what helps us cope with the heat. Generator fees have doubled, and due to the scarcity of diesel, they only work for a few hours anyway. State electricity works for barely an hour a day. At night, you see the real Shatila when electricity is out. You see all the people in the camp outside their houses, looking for air to breathe, barely dressed, unable to sleep in their houses that are hot, damp, and almost airless. The lucky ones have windows overlooking the street. This is daytime and yet cannot see anything inside most houses without electricity”, he continued.
I walked with Mahmoud Hashim through the alleys of the camp, trying to shake off the darkness in my eyes. As if we’re in a bottomless pit, sunlight does not reach the camp’s streets.
This is the essence of the camp. A fraction of life that turns on and off, with people trying to survive. Young people running, mothers screaming, the smell of burnt bulgur in tiny kitchens that would not fit two people. Windows half-open, with trembling feet of shadows leaning on damp walls.
In the distant past, the camp used to offer a potential for a better life. Now, its people know they are at the end of the line, standing in a long queue waiting for what seems to be an illusion of life. They tease out fractions of life, lives slowly beating amidst unemployment, violence, drugs, and fear.
The real fear is of the future of the camp. No authority can identify its daily crises and the chaos that has become a defining feature of Shatila Camp. In the absence of such an organization, the people of the camp still hope to end their many woes.