A Traveling Exhibition of a Palestinian Exodus

Photos from the UNRWA archives are on display in Jerusalem, telling the ongoing story of Palestinian refugees.

A picture is worth a thousand words. This one shows three Palestinian refugees in Cairo, sitting in front of an ancient television set, on which images of Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton flicker in black and white. The scene is the signing of the Oslo Accords and the expression on the faces of the refugees says it all. They show despair, in stark contrast to the ceremonious signing of the “historic” agreement broadcast on the screen.

That was 20 years ago and the despair of the Palestinian people has not become any more bearable in the interim, nor has their suffering. A new exhibit opened last week in the beautiful and well-designed gallery run by the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art. Situated in a refurbished old tile factory next to the New Gate in East Jerusalem, the gallery is a venue for showcasing Palestinian art.

The exhibit is called “The Long Journey” and features photos from the archive of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. From a collection of half-a-million photos that document the Palestinian odyssey almost from its beginning, curator Yazan Khalili, born in the Yarmuk refugee camp in Syria and currently a resident of Ramallah, has chosen only a few dozen images.

There are no photos depicting horrors, with torn bodies or blood, and only one Israeli soldier can be seen in the works on display.

Nevertheless, the whole exhibit is imbued with a sense of despair. This is a small, modest and restrained show, which renders it all the more powerful. Most of the photos do not have a date, as if to say that this happened yesterday, it’s happening today and will continue tomorrow. Time has stood still for Palestinian refugees.

We were accompanied on our visit by the UNRWA spokesman, Christopher Gunness, a Trinidad-born Briton. His grandfather was a slave, sold by his British master in Tamil Nadu in southern India to another British master in Trinidad. For 25 years, Gunness was a BBC correspondent; for the last seven, he has been the UNRWA spokesman. Both organizations, the broadcaster and the relief agency, are sometimes perceived as hostile in Israel. Gunness says that the exhibit’s message is that there is a people in this land that lived here before, that continues to exist with a future ahead of it and whose fate must be addressed.

Up to 1982, the organization’s historical archive of photos was kept in Beirut. When Israel invaded Lebanon, an unknown part of it was confiscated by the Israel Defense Forces. It is unclear if the photos have ever been returned. The UNRWA spokesman will not discuss this, but a study commissioned by the Institute for Palestinian Studies, funded by the Swiss government, determined these facts. After the war, this archive was transferred for safekeeping to Vienna, where UNRWA has its headquarters. In 1999, most of it − some 450,000 photos − was moved to Amman, while the remaining pictures and negatives went to the Gaza Strip.

When Israel invaded Gaza during Operation Cast Lead a decade later, the archive was again in danger; a large UNRWA warehouse went up in flames after being hit by white phosphorous shells. Israel ended up paying UNRWA more than $10 million in compensation.

UNRWA was concerned over the fate of the archive, which prompted an initiative whereby all of its photos would be scanned digitally. The initiative is only in its early stages, and has a budget of $750,000. The funds have been donated by the governments of Denmark and France, the Swedish camera company Hasselblad, and members of the Palestinian business community.

Hundreds of thousands of photos have been transferred from Amman to Sweden for scanning, which is being done by university students and high-schoolers, in the hope that the images will be preserved in perpetuity. To date, only 10 percent of the pictures have been scanned, and the current exhibit is one of the results of this effort.

UNESCO has listed the initiative on its Memory of the World Register ‏(of significant documentary pieces‏) and The New York Times covered the exhibit extensively last week. From East Jerusalem, the exhibit will travel to refugee centers in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. UNRWA would be only too happy to show the exhibition in Israel, but it is doubtful whether anyone would want to undertake such an endeavor.

A collage of 50 photos from Sabra and Chatila ‏(the scene of a 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in Lebanon‏) hangs on an illuminated board at the entrance to the exhibition. These are almost the only color photos in the entire show, and they portray wailing women, coffins, mass graves, destroyed houses and schools, and grieving men. The same horror can be seen in the photos of massacres similar to the ones in Lydda ‏(Lod‏) and Kfar Kassem, of the destruction in the Galilee and Gaza and of refugees in 1948, 1967 and 1982.

George Nehmeh, the Lebanese photographer who was working for UNRWA when he took the photos of Sabra and Chatila, relates in a video shown with the exhibit that for an entire month after the massacre, he was in a state of shock and could not leave home.

Other photos displayed show a group of refugees

getting off a bus near Aqaba, lost in the desert; a school in the Burj Al-Barajneh camp in Lebanon; a clinic in a camp near Jericho; children in the sands near Khan Yunes; Santa Claus in the Mieh Mieh refugee camp in Lebanon; blind people in a clinic in Beirut; Maryam Ajuri and her husband Suleiman, who fled from a refugee camp near Jericho during the Six-Day War in 1967, becoming refugees for a second time; Um-Rubbi, who went in search of her two lost children after they fled from the Qalandiyah camp in 1967 ‏(she found them in Al-Nasser camp in Jordan‏); a boy running for his life,

carrying a pile of mattresses on his tiny body, at the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon; a girl clutching a limbless doll in the Nahr-El Bared refugee camp in Lebanon. That camp was shelled by the Lebanese army in 2007, and the tens of thousands of people evacuated from it became refugees for a second, and sometimes a third time.

It’s not clear how many of the people appearing in the photos on display here are still alive. Over the years, Nehmeh met some of the people he photographed, and these encounters are documented in a video that is also part of the exhibition. There are the kids in the sands of Khan Yunes in 1955, and here they are today − no glimmer of hope in their lives then as now.

According to official UNRWA records, there are now five million registered refugees and their descendants. The organization assists them with employment, education, food and health services, but it is now in dire financial straits itself. Its annual deficit currently stands at $36 million. There are half-a-million pupils in UNRWA-run schools in countries hosting Palestinian refugees. This week, 22,000 of the agency’s teachers went on strike in the West Bank; it is doubtful they will be paid this month.

Some Israelis consider UNRWA to be a hostile organization. Others believe that its operations underwrite the occupation, or perpetuate the refugee status of these Palestinians. In any case, the plight of these five million people is crying out for a solution. It has been crying out for 65 years, and may continue to do so for another 65. Anyone who wishes to know why, or how many, should go see this small but powerful exhibition.

Alex Levac
S. Madver/Courtesy of UNRWA
George Nehmeh/Courtesy of UNRWA
George Nehmeh/Courtesy of UNRWA
Jack Mavdo/Courtesy of UNRWA