Opinion |

Take a Walk Around Sabra and Shatila, Before the Next War

Make your way through the narrow streets of the Palestinian camps overcrowded with Syrian refugees. The monument to the massacre is behind a market stall, at the back of a muddy field. Part 2 of 2 part series

Arnon Grunberg
Arnon Grunberg
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Two women inspect the bodies of Palestinians killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, three days after the killings by Lebanese Christian falangists. September 18,1982
Two women inspect the bodies of Palestinians killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, three days after the killings by Lebanese Christian falangists. September 18,1982Credit: REUTERS
Arnon Grunberg
Arnon Grunberg

Read Part 1 here: Between Hezbollah, Israel and another war: Can UN peacekeepers really keep the peace?

On my last day at UNIFIL, I join a patrol with an all-female battalion of Nepalese soldiers. The liaison branch of UNIFIL is the only unit that speaks to all parties on both sides of the border; they’re often seated across from Israeli and Lebanese officers in the same room. The unit is also present on the Blue Line, the ceasefire line that functions as a border and which is the site of the highest tensions. Joining a border patrol proved impossible.

Alongside UNIFIL, another UN mission, UNTSO, operates in the same area and conducts border patrols. UNTSO is also active in Israel, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

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Together with Captain Cynthia and Public Information Officer Deputy Spokesperson Tilak Pokharel from Nepal, we drive through southern Lebanon.

Just like during my previous visit in 2007, we occasionally encounter photographs of martyrs. You cannot see Hezbollah, but they are definitely there. As someone from UNIFIL told me: "Naturally, they won’t wear a uniform, they’re not that stupid."

Cynthia says that you can immediately tell whether a village is Christian or Muslim. The Christian villages, she says, are more "neat and clean" and there are no minarets.

There are countless new homes. Tilak argues that they are holiday homes for well-off Lebanese living abroad.

We arrive, somewhere in southeast Lebanon, at NEPBATT, headquarters of the Nepalese deployment of UNIFIL soldiers.

We get a presentation by Captain Ishwori. She says that there are 23 female Nepalese soldiers stationed at UNIFIL and that they are given three days leave during menstruation. We see photographs of female Nepalese soldiers in Lebanese villages.

"It’s easier for a woman to make contact with other women," the captain says.

"What is it that you do during a patrol, exactly?" I ask.

A United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) vehicle patrolling in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel is parked next to a poster showing Hassan Nasrallah, on December 9, 2018. Credit: Ali DIA / AFP

"We write up reports on incidents," the captain says. "For instance, one time we came across a Lebanese soldier filming a bunker, and we reported it. Our reports are first sent to the commander of the eastern sector, and if necessary they are passed on to HQ."

The patrol commences: 10 armed Nepalese soldiers are ready to be deployed. Their commander is also a woman.

The briefing, in Nepali, takes little over ten minutes. Then we set out. We drive through the south Lebanese valley at about 30 kilometers per hour.

A chaperon tells me this is a likely rocket launch area: in other words, rockets have been fired in the direction of Israel from this valley. Now there is nothing to be seen - just hills, rocks, a shepherd with a big herd of goats and several dogs. After half an hour we make a turn and drive back.

My chaperon says: "We can't go further. This is as far as we've agreed with the Lebanese army."

On our return we are welcomed with a copious and delicious Nepalese lunch. The extraordinarily friendly deputy commander Dizip says: "In the evening there is karaoke and we dance."

The UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon do not shoot: they sing and dance. Maybe this is the best way to guarantee some semblance of peace.

My visit to Lebanon concludes in Beirut with a visit to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, infamous for the 1982 massacre when Lebanese Christian phalangists killed hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese Shias in revenge for the murder of President Bashir Gemayel. This all took place on the watch of Israeli soldiers.

The woman who was my fixer in 2007, and has since been working full-time for The New York Times, is prepared to take me to the refugee camps. She still has the same impressive curls and the energy of a 20-year-old.

The camps turn out to be slums, at one time filled with Palestinian refugees, now with the addition of countless Syrian refugees. The slums are reminiscent of the favelas of South America.

Syrian refugee children stand on the stairs of their apartment in a building damaged during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war on a former Beirut frontline, Lebanon. Nov. 28, 2015Credit: Hassan Ammar,AP

The fixer takes me around. The narrow streets of Sabra and Shatila are overcrowded. Every so often a car, or even a small van, will try to maneuver through them. Shop, house and public space are hardly distinguishable; garbage and ground are completely integrated.

We stop in front of a shop, which might be too formal a word, where flatbreads and za'atar are sold. The thin pitta breads are cooked on a convex iron griddle, or saj.

Saad, a 17 year-old Syrian boy wearing a gray Adidas shirt and a cap who bakes and sells, tells me he fled from ISIS. Abas, 12 years old, also from Syria, assists him. They both hail from the same Syrian province.

"Children played with the decapitated heads, but I didn’t," Abas tells me. "My father forbade me."

"We have seen many executions," Saad says.

"Why did you look at the executions?" I ask.

"We came across them. It all happened in the middle of the street."

Abas works from seven till seven, morning till evening. He was smuggled into Lebanon; it cost his father 1000 dollars.

"Business isn’t good here," Saad says. "I have little faith in a future in Lebanon. The future looks brighter in Syria, it’s my country." Because returning to Syria is still impossible, he wants to sell saj pittot in the Shia neighborhood on the south side of Beirut.

We buy three flatbreads. Saad and Abas don’t want us to pay for it, we have to insist.

A bit further on is Abdallah, selling typically Syrian sweets and pastries, he’s in his mid-twenties. He studied economics in Syria, and left there in 2012. He wears a black jumper with orange stripes. His family owned four similar establishments in Syria, selling sweets. When he tells me this, his tone is dry, like: What can you do about it?

"Rent costs me 650 dollars," he says. "Sometimes the month comes to an end and we haven’t broken even on the rent. Saturday and Sunday are our best days." It’s Saturday, but customers are nowhere to be seen.

"The customers will be here later," Abdallah tells me. "Seventy percent of the Lebanese don’t treat the Syrians very well, but many Syrians also don’t understand the Lebanese. They’ll rent a house and then pick up and leave without notifying the owner. Yeah, this gets you beat up, but there are also Lebanese who assault Syrians for no reason whatsoever."

The father, with his gray hair slicked back, joins us. We buy some cookies. When we leave, they wave us goodbye. Some people carry their misery with an apparent, or not so apparent, cheerfulness.

A Syrian refugee girl begs for money in traffic, in Beirut, Lebanon. Studies show more than 1,500 children living or working on Lebanon's streets, nearly three-quarters of them Syrian. Feb. 10, 2016Credit: אי־פי

A little further into the camps we run into Khaled, 28 years old, a Palestinian from Aleppo. He served in the Syrian army and now he works with doors and aluminum.

"How’s it going here?" I ask.

"Take a walk through Sabra and Shatila," he says sarcastically. "You’ll see for yourself."

The refugee men particularly fear that if they return to Syria, they’ll be considered deserters. Khaled adds that his wife made it to Germany. She can’t get any papers, which is why she can't leave Germany. Conversely, he can’t get the necessary papers to enter Germany. They’ve been working to see each other again for two years now.

Samir, a man in his forties, born here in the camp, tells me: "We cannot buy a house because we were supposed to return to Palestine. That’s the bullshit excuse that the government gives out. They make money off of us, every registered refugee equals a payout from the UN. This is why they want us to stay refugees.

"The Syrians have done good things, thanks to them the [Lebanese] economy is up again. The government also earns money on them, yet water and electricity have grown scarcer. The only way to get out is by boarding a rubber dinghy boat and rowing to Europe." The thought makes him chuckle.

Only Palestinian women married to Lebanese nationals can buy realty. Actively obstructing refugees' natural integration, be it aggressively or less aggressively, will always cause problems.

Ultimately, everything is economics, including refugees and aid. The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020, organized by the United Nations and the Lebanese government, aims to assist 2.8 million people in need; the international community allocated 2.75 billion dollars towards it, which was amended to 2.63 billion dollars in 2019. Of this money, 43% has been raised for Lebanon.

Whether this means that the Lebanese government is profiting from money provided to Lebanon by the international community, as Samir claims, is hard to say. But one thing is certain, there is virtually no aspect of human suffering that can't be turned into profit in some way or another. Unfortunately, aid money is seldom won by those who have to carry the burden.

"You don’t see them, but Hezbollah has eyes everywhere," the fixer says.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters via a screen in Beirut, Lebanon, September 20, 2018Credit: \ Aziz Taher/ REUTERS

I ask whether there is a monument to remember the carnage of 1982: I would like to see it. She doesn’t know and like her, many others also seem unaware. First we’re sent to a cemetery with a man sitting on a garden chair; he has a tattoo of a swastika on his hand. Moticing me looking at it, he conceals the tattoo immediately.

"Here lie the other martyrs," the fixer says. She means Hezbollah fighters who died fighting Israel, or fighting the enemies of Assad in Syria.

Eventually we find the monument: it is situated behind a market. You have to pass through a market stall selling clothes to get there. It is built on a muddy field and at the back of the field we find a block of concrete with an inscription, in front of it a withered wreath. It is surrounded by both the Lebanese and Palestinian flags.

The wall on the right side of the small field, against the houses, has posters with photographs of corpses, and the text: "1982/9/17. We will never forget." There are chickens scrabbling about.

Hiding a monument - another way to forget, an attempt to bury history.

A Palestinian woman brandishes helmets she says were worn by the perpetrators of the Sabra and Shatila massacre during a memorial service in Beirut for its victims. Sept. 27, 1982Credit: Bill Foley / AP

Two bearded men seem to guard the monument, one is wearing slippers and army trousers. His mother was killed in 1982, he says.

I ask if he guards the monument. He answers that he lives here. When we leave via the clothing stall, the salesman nods somewhat mournfully in our direction. Perhaps he is disappointed that we visited the monument but didn’t pay any attention to the jeans for sale, but I might be mistaken.

Sabra and Shatila are repositories for humans who are considered detritus. Too often, and in many places, the refugee is considered as human waste, but the refugee himself tries to avoid this fate at all costs. The camps are bursting at the seams, but aren’t exploding yet.

That evening, the fixer tells me at a restaurant: "God has forgotten about us."

She adds: "What happened to Syria taught us a lesson. The new generation is only interested in eating and going out. Do I have to start a revolution for them? The status quo is less terrible than the revolution."

With those words, I leave Lebanon. And in the back of my mind there is the small miracle that a new civil war hasn’t broken out for the time being, nor a war with its southern neighbor, Israel.

Perhaps people are finally growing tired of war. But history teaches us that this fatigue never lasts.

This article was originally published in NRC Handelsblad in The Netherlands.

Arnon Grunberg is the author of the recent novels "Good Men" and "Birthmarks." He was born in Amsterdam and lives and works in New York. Twitter: @arnonyy

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