In late May the Lebanese Army attacked the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr El-Bared. Officially, it was aiming for between 200 and 300 Fateh El Islam militants who had quietly moved in, but it did not allow the approximately 35,000 civilian residents to leave until three days had passed. In that time about 23 civilians died and many more were injured. Two Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance workers were killed when they attempted to reach the wounded.
When evacuation was finally allowed, most residents, each with a plastic bag’s worth of belongings, began an open-ended exile living in overcrowded schools in the neighbouring refugee camp of Beddawi. Yet a month later, 3,000 Palestinian civilians still remained in Nahr El-Bared. They were braving the continuous shelling because of a lesson they had learnt to their cost once before: if you leave your home, you might never see it again.
During the ongoing attacks, human rights organizations began to collect testimonies which indicated that the Lebanese Army was also fighting a war against Palestinian civilians. When Palestinians from Beddawi camp staged a nonviolent demonstration, demanding that the army act to protect civilians during the attacks, soldiers opened fire, killing two and wounding 35.
Inside Nahr El-Bared, civilians were not only in danger from shells, but were being arrested by the army. Those in detention were suffering psychological and physical abuse, were being denied adequate food, water and medical care, and in some cases were being tortured.
Eighteen-year-old Abdullah was a student in Beirut, but was back in Nahr El-Bared for the holidays. Injured by shrapnel on the third day of the attack, he was taken by the Lebanese Army to a hospital, where he thought he would be given emergency treatment.
But the hospital, ostensibly run by monks, had in its basement a stifling prison under army control. ‘For the next few months I was cuffed and blindfolded most of the time,’ he explained. ‘They only questioned me for one hour, when they accused me of being a Fatah El Islam fighter.’
The rest of the time, Abdullah was regularly beaten, occasionally because they wanted him to sign a piece of paper which they would never let him read, but more often for no apparent reason. A Red Cross worker was permitted to take his name but not to question him. His dressings and colostomy bag were rarely changed. His cellmate, who had remained in Nahr El-Bared because he was the only person who knew how to work a semi-functioning water pump, died of blood poisoning when his bandages were left unchanged for a week.
After 106 days, Abdullah was released. His mother was waiting for him, but the Lebanese soldiers sent him out of a back door, telling him: ‘See, your family doesn’t care about you.’ Unable to walk unaided, he fell and broke his foot.
Now Abdullah and his family are waiting in their allotted schoolroom. Some of the Beddawi residents have thrown themselves into grassroots organizing, making sure they have a voice amidst the NGOs and officials drawing up plans for their future. Some run activities for the bored children. Women with mops try to keep the echoing corridors to the same standard of cleanliness they kept the homes that are now rubble.
In early October, 800 families were allowed to return to Nahr El-Bared to begin rebuilding. But the rebuilding of trust between Palestinian refugees and their Lebanese neighbours will require Lebanon to face up to institutionalized racism and breaches of international law against the refugees they are supposed to protect.