The first evening we arrived at Melad and Khalil’s place, where three of us share the floor of their makeshift shack 3m x 4m. The door has bullet-holes (as does almost everything at the camp and most buildings in Lebanon!) and the roof is rusted, corrugated iron, itself riddled with holes. This is one of the ‘nicer’ dwellings at the camp. There are rats, usually they’re small but we had a big one a few nights ago that woke everyone up, I managed to sleep through apparently. The mosquitoes are hellish. As the water comes from wells and we are on the sea-front, it’s salinated so washing isn’t really possibe, you never feel clean, all your skin is always covered in a layer of salt and sweat. Your hands always feel dirty. Getting to sleep is usually fine but waking up I always get cramps, probably just from bad circulation. It’s pretty grim. I get to go home though. This, I’m told, is an improvement on how they had been living after their previous camp was flattened.
They have their wall adored with heroes of resistance, Arafat gets top billing as does Hugo Chavez, ‘Vittoria’ an Italian activist and friend of Melad’s, who was killed by Hamas a few years ago. The picture of Sadamme Hussein with a quote from his trial is a bit unusual, but when I think about it, given the context and recent history, I’m sure his words on trial are resonant. The main picture of ‘Che Geuvara’ I keep trying to tell people is actually Benecio Del Torro from the movie ‘Che’, but it doesn’t seem to translate, or matter… I noticed he had a picture of a group of bagpipers on his wall. Melad told me he is close friends with the former leader of the group ‘Kanaan’, who lives closeby and we could meet together that evening. I knew before I came that Palestinians had a penchant for bagpiping and I was keen to try to meet some but I never thought I would be lucky enough for such a meeting to be made so easy.
We have spent a few evenings together with Kanaan and Mohammed playing music, talking and smoking sheesha. Kanaan tells me it is his dream to again own a Scottish bagpipe- ‘Girbee Skotlanda’ as they say in their Palestinian dialect. During the 2007 destruction of the camp all their bagpipes and other equipment were lost. Using my bagpipe to play Palestinian songs and dances, it is clear that these guys were keen players one time though Kanaan is suffering some paralysis to one side of his face so blowing the instrument has become difficult for him. Kanaan is also a phenomenal percussionist so he played tabla while Mohammed played on the pipes. Having not played bagpipe for several years and having no instruments of their own, the ease and enthusiasm with which they play is impressive to say the least. Before 2007 the guys tell me, they used to play mostly at weddings and to celebrate historic occasions, much as we do back in Scotland! “We play to make people happy” Kanaan says. Kanaan currently works as a labourer for the Lebanese military helping to fortify their checkpoints and security posts at the border with Syria, 15km north. Mohammed does what work he can around the camp.
Both are looking for ways to escape life at the camp but for stateless Palestinian refugees there are many hurdles, from lacking passports and official documents to the controls of the Lebanese government and of course the responsibilities to family and others at the camp. Everyone at the camp wishes to escape, the vast majority are seeking ways to travel to Europe, Canada or Australia, the stock phrase I have been told time and again is that “I dont want my children to endure the suffering I have and I just want a better life for my family”. The few who are not looking for a route to the West, my hosts Khalil and Melad among them, are commited to the resistance and the belief that one day their people will return to Palestine.
Conditions in the camp are dire. There are basic utilities but they are consistently terrible. Water from the taps is often dirty or salty, the electricity, on a good day will cut out 10 times, yesterday it was out all night so we sat round using candles and mobile phones for light. No street lights, only a few paved roads and the town still remains half in ruins. It has taken the agency UNRWA 8 years to rebuild less than half of the camp so at the current pace, it could be another 10 years until the remaining homeless are housed.
Several families are crammed in to small shacks not fit for a single family occupancy. In front of the school on the sea-front, a youth worker Zidane points to where the school playground used to be. Now there are just piles of rubble, still lying from the 2007 bombardment. “the Lebanese military dont allow us to use this area for a playground anymore for security reasons”. Zidane spends alot of time driving a small rickety open-sided bus round the camp, playing music and doing what he can to entertain the kids. I joined them a few days ago, playing some bagpipes and having a laugh with the kids.
Some children here are clearly withdrawn and are suffering and need a lot of encouragement just to engage and occasionaly smile, I can only imagine what some of these children have gone through, some are Palestinians who have twice been made refugees, fleeing recently from other camps over the border in Syria. One thing I can say about all the kids I have met here is that they are very tough and grow up fast. The boys are young men. 12 year old Bakir has taken me on tours round the camp and he is always on hand to help me, show me where places are, take me to buy food etc. He’s young but he has so many responsibilities, driving his scooter around the camp and doing errands and favours for just about everyone. On our first tour of the camp he and his friend Ali were showing me around, it was extremely hot and dusty so by the end I insisted that I buy them ice-lollies, they both refused several times so I didn’t press them any further in case there was a reason they wouldn’t accept. I was later told that they are taught to never accept gifts from guests or to take anything that isn’t theirs.