Camp Shatila

Camp Shatila -
A Writer's Chronicle

For two months at the end of 2008, Peter Mortimer lived in Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut. During his time there, he created a children's drama group at the Shatila school, and adapted one of his own fables, Croak The King & a Change in the Weather into a 30-minute theatre piece, incorporating dance, music, and mime.

He also kept a journal of his daily life: the frustrations of intermittent electricity and internet connection, the difficulties of working in the cramped conditions and constant noise of the camp, his homesickness and the generosity and welcome of some of the people he met..

The text which follows is an extract from Peter's description of the eighteenth day of his stay.

* * *

Imagine all your energies were dedicated to improving the lot of Palestinian women and children in a foreign country (and for Palestinians all countries have been officially declared foreign) in a camp where a quarter of the people were illiterate. You struggled to work with them on social issues, on education, literacy, you set up kindergartens where there had been none, you established a whole network of workshops on domestic violence and abuse, you ran classes on sewing, dressmaking, book-keeping, photography, computers, carpentry, you fought a constantly uphill struggle with limited resources in an attempt to heighten awareness. Despite all the obstacles, you made progress, with five counselling centres, and more than 1700 women involved annually.

And then in the space of a few hours a foreign power dropped bombs and fired thousands of shells into the camps wreaking destruction. Much of your work was undone, kindergartens and other buildings were destroyed, and you had to start again.

Thus the situation of Najdeh, the Palestinian NGO in Lebanon which had made my trip to Shatila possible. I sat and drank coffee with Najdeh director Leila Elali who'd worked for the organisation since 2000. It was first set up in 1977. The odds were impossible. Was there any light at the end of the tunnel?

"I am too much angry," said Leila in a memorable phrase, "People say they understand the Palestinian situation, but it needs more than understanding. It needs human rights being recognised and acted upon. Sixty years and in many ways it gets worse. The Palestinians are used by everyone."

I mentioned the idea of a Palestinian Arts & Culture Festival, which was slowly taking up living space in my own mind.

"Yes, yes, that is a very good idea."

Maybe, I said, dropping a hint, we could start with the modest theatre piece here in Shatila for which I was still awaiting permission?

"It is bureaucracy holding it up," said Leila. "On Monday I will chase it up for you with UNRWA." In Lebanon I never knew if such intentions were acted upon.

My least favoured time of the week approached, 3pm Saturday when all Najdeh employees went home, and when, for the next forty hours the building was empty save me and the ants. Where the corridors had been busy, people laughing and chatting, where I could poke my head round office doors and say "hi!" or wander into Marian's children sessions, or chew the fat with Fatima while we made tea in the small kitchen, suddenly there was nothing, and no-one.

I am a social animal. I feed off those around me. Waking up in a silent empty building, knowing it would remain empty all day (if not silent admittedly, the external noise saw to that), was not for me.

Thus with the Saturday afternoon blues, I wandered adrift round the camp. The death of Munir had put both Samia and Fatima's homes temporarily off limits. Castro's family had gone up into the mountains. I tried to phone Maissa Sekker unsuccessfully, and tried to track down her house which I had visited, but couldn't find again.

I called at the house of Ennaya. The door was opened by her young daughter Mosa and it was clear her mother was taking a nap. I made my excuses to leave, but this being Shatila, such things were unheard of.

Ennaya immediately got up and fruit and tea was put in front of me. I had bought small gifts of cheese and sardines.

"Let us sit on the balcony," she said. Most Shatila homes had plain concrete balconies, usually with a short view across the alleyway to the breeze block building opposite. Living on the edge of camp, and looking outwards, Ennaya had the luxury of sky, a view beyond the metal fencing bordering the camp into Sabra and dilapidated waste ground. Bizarrely, on this waste ground stood a flakily painted, rusting and neglected fairground roundabout, which I guessed had long since circled its last. I was later to discover this was not so.

There was also rubbish, rusty abandoned cars and all manner of detritus, but dominating the scene was the ruin of a six storey building I was later to name The Hulk, a structure that during my stay took on an almost totemic qualities.

Its front was ripped off to give a honeycomb effect, revealing dark craters of what once had been people's living rooms. The top right hand corner of the building was snapped off like a tooth. Some walls hung half suspended in space. A tatty Hezbollah flag fluttered weakly from the building's summit, and there unbelievably, walking among the rubble of each storey, no doubt having gained access via the surviving staircases, and foraging for food, was a small flock of sheep.

Where had these sheep come from, here in this urban setting? And how? No-one seemed sure. The Hulk had been blasted into partial oblivion 24 years previously in the War of the Camps, and had remained untouched since.

* * *

Peter Mortimer's Shatila journal has been published by Five Leaves Publications as Camp Shatila: A Writer's Chronicle(October 2009), and can be ordered from Inpress.

Read about a subsequent visit to Lebanon.