(Pictures by Glyn Strong)
Twenty four years ago, a young Hertfordshire surgeon was caught at the epicentre of a war. In her darkest moments she expected to die.
Today, on a bright spring morning, Dr Pauline Cutting and her Dutch GP husband Ben Alofs reflect on that time from the sunny farmhouse kitchen of their rambling Welsh home. This former rectory, surrounded by trees and set well back from the main road, has been a haven to them for 15 years. Their two children have grown up here. A large, cream Labrador grunts and snores in a basket on the floor. The location is peaceful, but the conversation is becoming increasingly animated. We are talking about Gaza, Palestine and the 61-year-old elephant in the room that no-one wants to acknowledge.
Two decades ago Cutting was thrust into the limelight by bloody conflict when she brought the siege of Lebanon’s Bourj al Bourajneh refugee camp to a disbelieving world. Through a makeshift radio/telephone link, set up by one of her medical colleagues, she broke the news of how the camp’s inhabitants were being systematically starved to death. Before the impact of her words had sunk in, images followed. A few photographers and journalists had got into the camp and seen the refugees’ plight for themselves. The situation was desperate. Cutting and her colleagues were eating dogs to survive.
As a volunteer surgeon she was part of a small medical team trapped in the camp and under siege by the Amal militia. Like 80 per cent of those in Gaza today, its inhabitants were dispossessed Palestinians.
Wandering round its gloomy, labyrinthine alleys, ducking under dangerous low-hanging loops of electrical cable , I wonder what went wrong. Why, after the reportage that so dramatically highlighted their plight in 1985, did Cutting’s ‘Children of the Siege’ disappear from the world’s radar?
Of course, Cutting was only a minor player in a political drama that has run longer than The Mousetrap. Her abiding memories are not of the medical challenges, gnawing hunger or daily danger, but the “small acts of kindness” from families who had next to nothing. No artillery rains down on the camp now, nor is it under siege, but the Palestinian community of Bourj al Bourajneh still has next to nothing .
In my memory Cutting is the slim, sharp-featured young doctor with a curtain of long hair, whose features dominated the evening news for a period of weeks during the ‘eighties. Today she is 57 and slightly less lean, but no less passionate or articulate.
As a volunteer with MAP (Medical Aid for Palestine) Cutting spent 18 months in Lebanon, performing emergency surgery in makeshift operating theatres, treating sick and wounded men, women and children.
Against a background of bombardment and sniper fire she and her medical comrades worked tirelessly, as supplies of food and drugs dwindled away. Cutting got head lice, lost so much body weight that she was often faint and watched mothers feed their starving children with grass.
As conditions deteriorated Cutting famously said: “We will stay with the people of the camp until the danger is over. We will remain with them – to live or die with them.”
Many did die. Some lost limbs or, like seven year old Bilal, were paralysed by a sniper’s bullet.
Others just starved. A (Time) magazine report on 23 February 1987 described Bourj as being “on the brink of cannibalism”. Residents had already resorted to eating rats. A Sunni cleric sought clarification on whether it would be permissible to eat human flesh if it became necessary for survival. Eventually the siege was lifted and Pauline Cutting came home.
But the real story didn’t end there and more than 20 years later the camp still exists; it is still dependent on organisations like UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), NGOs and volunteers. It is still a ‘temporary’ home to people who dream of returning to places that exist only in their hearts and minds.
The journey that took me to North Wales and then Beirut – where many Palestinians still speak with warmth of ‘Dr Pauline’ – was prompted by the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead , the Israeli Defence Force’s three week assault on Gaza , ostensibly to stop Hamas firing rockets into Israel and prevent it from re-arming. It began on 27 December and ended 22 days later.
During this onslaught too, hospitals and medical volunteers came under fire; once again civilians were killed and maimed. Journalists and outraged NGO workers protested, bloggers and social networkers went into print with frenzy. But, paradoxically, it was probably the BBC’s decision not to screen a Disaster Emergency Committee aid appeal that brought the scale of the casualties to mass public attention in the UK. Briefly, thoughts of recession were put aside as Briton’s dug into their pockets to help Gaza’s victims.
At a MAP event in London, to mark the launch of The Lancet’s damning report on Palestinian Health in Gaza and the West Bank, Dr Swee Chai Ang projected a series of images that made her audience wince – the head of a decapitated child, lying in rubble like a grotesque football; a torso, so crudely stripped of limbs by an explosive device that it resembled raw meat; children with skin burned and seared by white phosphorous.
The real cause of this latest humanitarian tragedy pre-dates Cutting’s birth. It is a legacy of the 1948 Palestine War that resulted in establishment of the State of Israel. Celebrated by Jews worldwide the creation of this ‘homeland’ had another, less happy, outcome – the exodus of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians. Some fled voluntarily, intending to return as soon as the fighting ended; others were forcibly expelled. There are conflicting and contested accounts of how many left and why, but they are all deeply disturbing.
UN Resolution 194, passed in 1948, states that Palestinians have a right to return to their homes if they are willing to live in peace with their neighbours. Palestinian refugees want it implemented. Israel is resistant, seeing the possible return of millions of refugees as a threat to its existence. If Israel’s hope was that that the problem would go away as first generation exiles died, or the Palestinians become absorbed into their host countries, it was a vain one.
The Palestinian diaspora extends to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the West Bank. Sixty years after the event that created them their numbers have grown to over four million; at least 400,000 are in Lebanon – 10 percent of the population – and above 20,000 (officially the population of a large town in the UK) still in Bourj al Bourajneh.
Palestinians refer to their exile as the Nakbah (‘catastrophe’) – an event highlighted in the controversial drama ‘Go to Gaza, Drink the sea’ and Scottish artist Jane Frere’s powerful and haunting exhibition ‘Return of the Soul’. Both claim to be neutral statements about how things are; both have been attacked for being anti-Semitic. It is a subject that polarises opinion dramatically. Even Cutting and Alofs, in a clearly often exercised debate about forgiveness and war crimes, don’t always see eye to eye.
Palestinian children born during the camp siege that Cutting survived are still confined to the square kilometre that contains Bourj al Bourajneh. This foetid shanty town exists within, but apart from, the bustling cosmopolitan city of Beirut; its walls are not physical, but they are very real. They cut Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees off from 80 per cent of the country’s jobs, the freedom to travel, buy property and vote.
In effect, the camp is an open prison. It’s here that I meet another remarkable woman, Olfat Mahmoud from WHO (the Women’s Humanitarian Organisation). An activist, scholar, and vehement fighter for the Palestinians’ Right to Return to be recognised, she was born in Bourj al Bourajneh in 1960 and once worked alongside Pauline Cutting. Apart from overseas work and study trips, she never left.
“In the ‘60s, even as Palestinians we needed a pass to go from one camp to another, there were formal entry points and walls. Now we just have psychological walls. Today there are no checkpoints, but people feel safer inside the camps so they isolate themselves. In summer many Palestinians come here to Bourj al Burajneh, to visit their relatives. Instead of spending money on hotels they stay with their families and buy them TVs and fridges. People do watch the news, particularly during catastrophes, but in real terms, they have no idea what is going on outside, especially with women’s issues; they are not socially or politically aware.”
Smartly dressed and articulate, Mahmoud is not typical of the camp’s women. Through WHO, and in partnership with Lebanese charities like Al Jana (the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts), her mission is to empower them. I meet her fresh from a meeting with the city’s mayor, in the ‘home’ she grew up in as an ‘exile’.
She’s a busy woman, but she’s also keen to talk about issues that are close to her heart . She’s unapologetic about her views – on Islam, Israel, the Nakbah, and on the plight of the refugee community’s women who suffer unique deprivations.
Mahmoud, who’s studying for a PhD, has just authored a paper
on the subject. It examines conditions and coping strategies and makes sobering reading. It is based on Bourj al Bourajneh but has application for all 12 of Lebanon’s camps. The country has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees classified as living in abject poverty and who are registered with the UNRWA’s special hardship programme.
Unlike other refugee populations, the Palestinians do not benefit from the protections and guarantees afforded by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. Doubly damned they are anomalies even within the refugee population. UNRWA says: “They do not have social and civil rights, and have very limited access to the government’s public health or educational facilities and no access to public social services. The majority rely entirely on UNRWA. Considered as foreigners, Palestine refugees are prohibited by law from working in more than 70 trades and professions. This has led to a very high rate of unemployment amongst the refugee population.”
The WHO workers have to contend with the legacies of tradition, culture and religion and need to tread carefully when dealing with all three.
Mahmoud sighs: “People say ‘Oh it’s a sin to do that!’ but when I ask them to explain why, they don’t know. Usually there is nothing in the Koran to support or explain these beliefs, they are just the products of tradition. “Many men use the Koran to frighten women. With the support of other groups and social workers we hold legal workshops to explain this. We went to the sheikh of the mosque here and said we wanted to see marriage and divorce explained to them properly from an Islamic perspective. There are lots of things people believe in that are not true and it makes their lives difficult. For example when you sign the marriage contract (and most sheiks don’t explain it) there is a question about whether you wish to make any conditions.
“Women can put any conditions they want, but usually they (the sheiks) don’t ask and women don’t know that they have that right. They can say ‘If we get divorced I want my children to be with me’. If the man disagrees then they know where they stand, and can refuse to get married. It is a proper contract, but not widely known about because everything is controlled by men.
“Then some women do know but are afraid or ashamed to ask because they think people will say ‘Even before marriage you think of divorce? What does this mean!’ So they dare not. We try to raise awareness of this. We say ’It is not shame; you need to protect yourself. It is your right.
The sheik here supports this, and he and a female charity worker run a workshop one and a half hours every week to explain these things.”
But with generations occupying the same households, and tradition being a part of the glue that holds them together, change does not come quickly.
Mahmoud is tackling issues that are challenging anywhere; in the closed world of a refugee camp they are intensified both by social problems and by the fact that anything to do with Palestinians seems to cause discomfort in the international community. She confronts both. “We want to reassure the organisations who fear what we do; we are not against Islam, only those people who try to use it. Islam is now always associated with terrorism and, I am being honest with you now, some NGOs are frightened about their future so they start to avoid touching on any Islamic point – but this is wrong. I say by doing this maybe you please western supporters, but you are losing your local community.”
Mahmoud is a true child of the camps, but she is also a rare and strong individual; rooted in Palestinian history she is, by dint of curiosity, hard work and determination, a powerful force for change. “My grandmother died in 2004 and she was 95 years old. Whatever I did she compared it to her life in Palestine, even after56 years. Every time I had a baby she would come and tell me about how she had her children in Palestine, never about her children born here; it’s as if her life here did not count, was not real. I inherited this house from her. It is the biggest house in the camp, but always she would complain and say ‘I used to have a big house, why am I in this sardine tin?’ Her generation were in this frozen state.
“My father was 12 and my mother around 10 when they left: every night we sat around the heater and they would tell us about Palestine – blindly I can describe my village; I have never been there but I can! Really they tell you every detail so always you have this spiritual link. My generation, we learned to fight – not with weapons, but against obstacles.
“The generation born during the civil war in Lebanon were just busy trying to survive. I too was born in a camp but I felt safe – my parents were so calm and they spent time with me. I compare it with nowadays and it’s not the same. Even in spite of the bombing and everything we felt protected. This generation just want to flee, to migrate, to get out.”
Like Cutting, Alofs and all medical staff who work selflessly through the dangers of war and conflict Mahmoud is dismissive of her own bravery but proud of her small triumphs. “I remember once many children had been injured. One girl had lost all her brothers and sisters. She was bleeding badly and urgently needed an operation. Her blood was AB negative, which is rare and we had none and there was heavy bombing . I said ‘Give me an ambulance and blood kit and I will get you blood’ and I went to all the military bases because that is where to find people. I tested all their blood and it was no, no, no – but by midnight I had been successful and managed to bring blood.
“This was in 1981, I was still a student, not even a qualified nurse. But I always believed in fate: if something will happen, it will happen – and that’s a strategy for coping.”
Years later, in July 2006, when Mahmoud was married with four children, she sat at her home near Beirut’s Arab University listening to bombing once again. Her heart was in the Bourj Al Barajneh refugee camp because it has surrounded by a bombardment areas in the southern suburb of Beirut.
“My husband is a director and Cinema photography – he was filming in Syria. I said to my children ‘ I can’t stay at home , I have to get to the camp. You know, people in the camp refused to leave their homes. They said: “we have been refugee once and we don’t want to repeat it. Also where to go!” They witnessed 33 days of war – day by day – just ‘next door’. I told my children ‘You stay at home and look after each other, if something goes wrong you go the neighbours’.
“ The airport road was empty apart from my car – I was the only one who was driving on it. It felt so strange. When I got to the camp we tried to organise things. I came every day for a whole month even Sundays.”
Before becoming a community worker Mahmoud qualified as a nurse and clinical trainer, studying in the UK , and Australia, but her returns to Lebanon always seemed to coincide with some kind of conflict. She laughs: “My friends used to say ‘When you travel, let us know please, so we can prepare for an emergency ’ . ”
Mahmoud got back to Lebanon from London in time for the February uprising in 1984 and from Australia for the first camp war. She had previously been working in the Palestinian Red Cross maternity hospital in Sabra camp and initially planned to stay there with a friend on her return. Luckily, because she had to rise early for work, she didn’t. The hospital was destroyed that night.
“It was 6.30, the first day of Ramadan,” she recalls. “My brother, who likes to sleep, was already up, so I asked him what was wrong.”
He told her that two bombs had fallen overnight in Bourj camp but Gaza hospital was damaged. Mahmoud said: “Just Last night I was in Gaza Hospital – Ramallah was Sabra’s maternity hospital, Gaza dealt with surgical cases but both of them are connected and known as Gaza hospital – this can’t be. He said ‘Believe me, everything is a mess, do not go and its not working anymore’.”
They put the radio on to hear reports of more bombing and heavy fighting. ”My mother of course went to the bakery for bread; this is the first thing women do, shop for war!”
For two more hours the family listened to confused reports of escalating violence until her second brother came home. “Why are you not at the hospital’’ he asked her. He didn’t mean the one in Sabra though. Haifa hospital in Bourj al Borajneh, where Mahmoud had been born and where later Pauline Cutting was to work, was full of casualties.
Mahmoud pauses. “He took me there and – oh my God – that is why I later quit nursing. It was dreadful.
“At that time, in 1985, it was not a hospital, just a polyclinic. It had a small first aid room for home accidents and a ward for disabled people. No staff nurse, and just one, young, Palestinian doctor who had qualified in Bulgaria. I felt very sorry for that doctor.” She found casualties piled up – the dead, the dying and those with only minor wounds mixed up together. It was a scene that recalled to her student images of Florence Nightingale, passing through the grim wards of Scutari with her lamp.
Pragmatic as ever, Mahmoud began to organise a triage assessment to prioritise the injuries. The clinic was pitifully ill-equipped to deal with the scale of the carnage. For a month she did “what nurses did not do”- removing bullets and shrapnel, debriding wounds and dealing with gangrene. The body count rose to 17 but there was no morgue . “It was the beginning of summer and getting hot. All we could do to help with the smell was to cover the bodies with lime.”
The Red Cross were allowed to enter just once. In desperation young people from the camp were trained to do simple first aid – prepare drips so that when there was heavy bombing the team was as ready as it could be. Eventually the bodies were buried together, around a memorial statue dedicated, ironically, to the Unknown Soldier.
Mahmoud’s memories of this day are accompanied by the muezzin’s call to prayer that echoes over the rooftops of Beirut. It adds to the poignancy of a recollection that still affects her profoundly.
This first camp war – and the intense period from May to June 1985 – predated significant MAP involvement or Pauline Cutting’s arrival. “There were no doctors during that war “says Mahmoud. “ I remember, one guy was injured in his back, so badly you could see the nerve ends. It was such a painful and sensitive wound. I said, ‘we can’t touch him, just change the dressing’. He had to lie on the floor because there were no beds. ”
His temperature soared and they thought he would die. Eventually, at five o’clock one morning when the snipers took their break, Mahmoud found time to examine him again. The wound was alive with maggots. Using saline applied by syringe, and a debriding knife, the team cleaned and dressed the man’s wounds. They did this again each morning, in the quiet hours when firing ceased for a short while. Against all odds, he lived. And today he is fine. He works in a bank,” she tells me with pleasure.
Eventually Walid, a staff nurse, joined the team which made a huge difference. They performed surgical procedures and dealt with femoral artery bleeding so successfully that doctors from Beirut later asked how they had managed to control it for seven days.
I too am intrigued! Mahmoud laughs. “I used pressure, fear – and ice! And it worked. Sometimes the blood spurted right up to the ceiling, but many of the people we saved are still alive, running around here, in this camp. One man is now in Sweden or Denmark I think – he was injured here (the groin) and all he kept asking was whether his (peals of laughter!) you know, was still working! That is a man. I said ‘you ask this silly question when you may die!’. But it was a bad time.”
“My generation were survivors. Today’s generation see themselves as victims, never knowing what is happening from day to day. And this is a big problem.”
But what do they want to survive as, I ask her; as Lebanese citizens? “No, no. I always say this: Lebanon is my second homeland. I was born here but I always look at it as my second home. The right to return is ours whether we exercise it and live in Palestine or not. We should be able to visit it; to have no other nationality, but Palestinian. And the first step is recognition. We know it is a process which means it will take time. It’s not a miracle that will happen within 24 hours, but you can’t ask someone to suffer while you are solving their problem.”
In the short term she believes that the refugees in Lebanon should be given the right to be in the country legally and be given Palestinian passports until details of the right to return are worked out. “At least they should give us this. After 61 years it brings great shame on the world not to have solved the problem.”
Bourj al Bourajneh camp has grown since Cutting and Alofs’ time; not outward, but upward, with rooms tacked on to already unsafe structures. When the refugees first arrived they lived in tents, expecting to leave at any time. Later when houses were built they were still seen as temporary structures; flimsy and cold in winter their thin walls soon displayed cracks and the tracks of running water.
On the roof of Mahmoud’s old home women are now being given the chance to do aerobics. “But first we need to put up screens,” she explains, “because they can be seen from everywhere at the moment.”
Physical exercise is difficult in a cramped warren with no space and little sunlight, in a culture where modesty is important. Inertia, frustration and chronic health problems perpetuate depression, feeding the edgy disaffection that permeates the camp. Another problem is the cycle of domestic violence that occurs.
WHO Youth Co-ordinator Zeina Salhani who works with Mahmoud says “We have to tell the children that a ruler is for making lines, not for hitting – and sometimes we have to tell the teachers also.”
Leaving the camp is like crossing an invisible line. Unlike the brick footprint that describes where the Berlin Wall used to run, Bourj’s boundaries are intangible. Within feet of its perimeter traffic flows, normal life goes on. Travelling by car to meet another former colleague of Pauline Cutting it is hard not to reflect on the irony of how impenetrable invisible boundaries can be.
Dr Mohammad Osman, is Secretary General of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The Federation is the world’s largest humanitarian organization and its millions of volunteers are active in 185 countries.
Osman is based at Akka Hospital and, like Mahmoud, does not live in a refugee camp. His memories of the camp wars, between 1985-87, are vivid. “Sometimes we got permission to visit the hospitals – and this is how I met Dr Pauline, at the beginning of the war. I met her in Haifa hospital. Later on we became very good friends. We appreciated her and were also proud of her because she remained with us during very dangerous and difficult times, through the shelling of the camp, when there was no food.
“Through her and Ben, who was then a nurse and later became her husband, they made many appeals and through them we got support – medical supplies, medicine and sometimes equipment. During the cease fire we managed to get a generator for the hospital, but the most important thing was the moral support.
Images of events in Gaza were brought to world attention by technology that didn’t exist in the 1980s and without a fragile radio link the outcome of the camp wars could have been even worse as Osman recalls.
“Dr Pauline helped us through the media, by talking on the radio. At that time I was in the Red Cross HQ, where the media were camped – we couldn’t get to her but I talked to her by radio. There were many journalists here and when she talked they believed her – more than us! We had already said that people in the camps were eating grass and rats, but when she said it they believed her.
”The radio was the only way to contact our hospitals inside the camps – Bourj al Bourajneh and Shatilah where Dr Christoferou was. It was his suggestion. We spoke daily about the numbers of casualties, what was needed, all that was going on inside the camp, through this radio.” It was the radio that was to connect Cutting to her parents and then the outside world. “I still have it now!” says Osman.”Not to use – just as a memory.”
The significance of that lifeline for those trapped in the camp is something Osman will never forget. “At that time in all Lebanon there were no rules, nothing. It was chaos” he recalls.
After the camp wars ended he fell in love and, like Cutting and Alofs, married. The friendship forged in desperate time endured. “ Twice Pauline visited me – once with Ben, then with the children. We have photos together, their family and my family.
“After the camp wars we reconstructed our hospitals, field hospitals and primary care centres. Now we have five hospitals distributed around all Lebanon, and nine health centres, all for Palestinians – some inside the camps, some outside. Now we can concentrate on teaching the staff because, you know, during the war we just had to focus on the wounded people.
“Salaries are funded by the Palestine Liberation Organisation; others by NGOs and national societies, like MAP UK. And I must tell you, Dr Swee, from MAP, she was a hero. She drove our ambulance and met Pauline inside the camp. She is a great woman and I respect her like Pauline Cutting; she is fantastic, tiny but strong, very strong.”
Osman concedes that things have got better, despite the psychological problems and depression that afflicts many of the refugees. “Obviously it is much healthier and safer than it was during that time. The hospital has improved a lot, socially life got better, people were able to leave and repair their homes which were destroyed during the camp war. But in general the life of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is miserable. “I always say to foreign visitors and journalists, there is a big difference, between what you see on the TV what you see with your eyes on the ground. When you see the truth you can express it more.”
“The Palestinian refugees here in Lebanon are deprived of all kinds of rights, human rights, civil rights, but inside the camp they work. And we are very proud of our women, they have sacrificed a lot and keep Palestine in the minds of our children and protect our heritage.”
Can they qualify as doctors? He smiles ruefully: “Of course – if they have money! For example I qualified as a doctor in Moscow.” Like Mahmoud he won a scholarship, something that is now very difficult.
“I was born in Lebanon. I studied in UNRWA schools, but like all Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon we came from Palestine, from the area surrounding the city of Safad.”
Osman is a serious man who chooses his words carefully: “ I’m sure Palestinians will return, maybe not in our lifetime, but one day it is coming, the chance to go back to our homeland. Our village now is destroyed, but they did not build anything there. My father had land and I am not ready to give it to the Zionists. We are not against the Jews. Jews are people like us, but we are against the Zionistic movement.”
Each Palestinian’s experience of exile is different; but when we discuss Gaza all reactions are the same. Osman is quiet. After a deep breath he says “ There are no words to describe it . . . it is unbelievable. Killing the children it is . . . barbaric. Children, women, destroyed in cold blood; what is this! There is no justice in this world.
“The conscience of the British people should go back 60 years . No – more; to the Balfour Declaration in 1917. But let me tell you, when they came to make the documentary about Pauline (reference), on their last day I invited them for lunch. There was a – cameraman. I said ‘Your government is responsible for our Nakbah’ and he said ‘I am sorry Dr Osman. We are here to repair the wrongs of our grandfathers’ and I said ‘OK, I can drink with you now!’ It was a good day.
“We hope the day will come when those who think Palestinians are occupying Israel will know the truth about who occupied whom and how they took our land and would not even share it and have two states. They want to take everything . . . this situation is impossible.”
As I prepare to leave Dr Osman says “Tell the truth; what you see, what you hear yourself about the Palestinian refugees everywhere and especially here in Lebanon because it is the most complicated situation. For instance I am a doctor, but I cannot open my own clinic in Lebanon. We are not asking too much, just to have the minimum of dignity and social and civil liberty. No-one is asking for Lebanese passports, we are ready to live as refugees until there is a just resolution, but we want to feel we are human beings, able to bring up our children without war, and without suffering what we suffered. They have the right to live like any other children in the world, peacefully, to have a good education and participate in building a good society.”
In another part of Beirut, I meet a man whose life is dedicated to supporting that right.
Moatas Dajani, the founder of Al Jana, is a self confessed book hoarder. The fruits of his lifetime love affair with archaeology and other passions line the walls of the room we meet in. He shows me one called Moshe Dayan’s Collection, featuring artefacts from antiquity. “So what makes them Moshe Dayan’s eh? Where did the Israeli General acquire them from?” It is a rhetorical question.
Dajani is a Palestinian who has Jordanian citizenship, but his life is spent networking amongst the organisations dedicated to helping Lebanon’s disadvantaged communities, through creative activities.
A fourth generation of Palestinian children is now coming to terms with the reality of being born with refugee status. They face a political and economic future far bleaker than that which confronted their forebears, and with considerably weakened social and cultural resources to sustain them. Anger, frustration and the question ‘Why me?’ is almost inevitable.
Each year, older community members, who have been repositories of folklore, transmitters of collective memory, and links to the Palestinian past, become fewer. Camp schools concentrate on basic education and are poorly resourced to teach Palestinian culture, history, and folklore – the things that help to build young refugees’ sense of identity, and self-esteem. Al Jana’s conflict transformation program has been trying to address this since 1990.
Back at Bourj al Bourajneh I had seen evidence of these efforts and heard from Zaina about the short holidays it brokered. “The last was six weeks ago. We had 141 children and young people. We went to Faria, Jeita to the snow where there is the skiing and then we went to the fun fair, in Beirut. Although it’s only a short distance away in the heart of the city, camp children would never normally visit it. “
There are no gardens in Bourj al Bourajneh. Children of the camp are as much prisoners of its invisible walls as their parents says Zaina. “In the summer we take them to the river. Most of them like nature and whenever we go somewhere where it is green they love it. At the beginning of April we take them to the zoo, because we try to link our outdoor activities with something. We had a project showing them how to use the internet for research. Each child had to research an animal. At the zoo they saw the animal they had researched for real. Then we collected the research projects and made them into a book that will be kept in our library. Now children can learn directly from each others’ work.
“On our last trip we took parents and they enjoyed it as much as the children. The man at the fun fair joked that there should be a sign saying ‘Play Area For Mothers’ as well. Last summer we went to the beach, and a restaurant where they all sat down to eat and they were very, very happy. Without organisations like Al Jana these children would never do these things.”
Dajani believes that marginalised societies are very rich in terms of creative problem solving strategies and very culturally dynamic , even under siege. “There is no welfare state in Lebanon but we have a network of over 66 organisations working with children and youth and much of what we do is based around networking.
“We have four programmes; an active memory programme; an active learning and creative expression programme which uses the arts, like cinema, photography, film and music; since 2006 we have a conflict transformation programme and a youth media programme. So, primarily we are about producing learning materials based on cultural contributions.”
He shows me a project started in Bourj al Bourajneh and Shatila camps in 1998. It looked at issues that were of interest to the camps’ children and how they could express them through photography art, film-making and writing. “It was a four year process during which they made three internationally award-winning films and a publication that has been translated into four languages, which is all their own work – their photography, their art their reflections. It is called ‘I wish I were a bird’. The title is self-explanatory.
But Dajani is a pragmatist. What he – through Al Jana – has achieved is astounding; it even includes the founding of an international film festival. But it’s not without poignancy. One film is called ‘Neither here nor there’ – a touching record of how young Palestinians hoping to escape their prison found rejection in another country which also saw them as outsiders.
The Nakbah didn’t just affect those who left Palestine in 1948. It reached down the years to blight lives of future generations, robbing adults of dignity and self respect, depriving children of a childhood and a future.Richard Cook, Director of UNRWA Affairs for Lebanon, describes a situation of chronic underfunding for decades, particularly the last two. The world’s longest running refugee crisis has notched up a bill of around $10.5 billion since the agency’s inception in 1950.
Olfat Mahmoud believes that the passage of years makes no difference. “The problem of return is not about time or having the space. Of course there is space for Palestinians to return – and not only to Gaza and the West Bank, but to all Palestine. Most people would accept at least acknowledgement of this right, but you can’t keep a people suffering and not knowing what to do just because you have not agreed how to solve the problem!”
Recently a Palestinian embassy opened in Beirut, but Mahmoud says it is too early to say whether it will make a difference to those in the camps. She believes the international community paid attention to the building of the Palestinian Constitution but forget about the refugees.
“As Palestinians we lack any structure or representation in the camps. We are fed up with our situation, but over the years the world has been distracted by so many other situations, in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Our case is older but it has been set aside.”
The Palestinian refugee situation should have been resolved decades ago. It is one the international community have shied away from repeatedly, engaging only on an ad hoc basis when spikes of military activity, and the ‘collateral damage’ that comes in their wake, make it impossible to look away.
 “Palestinian refugee women in Lebanon: Conditions and Challenges in Bourj al Bourajneh Camp. A study by WHO, authored by Olfat Mahmoud 2009.