I first learned about the massacres in the camps Sabra & Shatila when David worked on a documentary about it for ABC news in 1982. It was one of his first projects as a television journalist and the images from that hour film continue to haunt me. On this day, we visit Sabra & Shatila a full 27 years after the massacre.
I arrive downstairs at the Hotel Albergo wearing white flared pants and red platform shoes – relatively low heeled by my standards and Miranda calls attention to my outfit. “Dad look what Mom’s wearing!” I’m immediately sent back to my room to change and put on a pair of sneakers and khakis. I’m not at all sure what to expect when I hear the words “Palestinian Refugee camp” and I’m not at all prepared for what I find. We drive through the busy car-choked streets of Beirut and the signs on the road begin to change. No more Ralph Lauren and Armani ads, and the streets get narrower and narrower. Soon I wonder how our drive will maneuver the narrow streets but I remind myself this is Beirut, where driving is a full contact sport.
Our driver keeps trying different congested alleyways until finally we come across an alley where two official members of the camp have been waiting for us. David arranged to have an official escort into the camps. I’m guessing it wouldn’t be a good idea to come barging in as tourists with expensive pocketbooks and cameras around our necks. Thank heavens I took off the red platform shoes.
We are advised not to take photos until we get official permission. This is not a camp with tents over acres of dusty ground but an amalgam of tunnel-like streets and crumbling apartment buildings which seem to have grown up like a pile of messy weeds. I am first struck by the noise – jackhammers are raging at every corner. The few paved streets are being torn up, while others are a loose pile of dirt over crumbled concrete. The pathways among the buildings are so narrow, we have to walk single file. The residents pile past us barely glancing at us in our obvious Western gear. My friend “N: jests, “We soooo blend in here.” Not.
Our guides give us permission to take photos and then quickly tell us to stop. We’re never sure why they suddenly say “no photos.” We may be near an official PLO office or perhaps there is a menacing figure in the area. Whatever the reason, when they say “no photos” we comply. I take few shots of actual people because I’m fascinated by the construction or lack thereof. The wires leading between crumbling buildings, the jerry rigged water pipes and spray painted graffiti and posters of Yasser Arafat on the wall fascinate me.
We are not in the camps five minutes before Kathy starts cooing at the bright-eyed children and soon a toothless grandmother pushes her grandbaby in front of us, encouraging us to take a photo. She speaks French and before long I have the little girl in my arms with the grandmother ordering the little girl to give me a “bisou” so I’m blessed with a tender little kiss on my cheek. Throughout our time in the camps, Kathy becomes our cultural attaché, charming the grandmothers by remarking on the beauty of their children. If we take a photo of one child, we have to take a photo of all in the vicinity.
It’s beyond shocking to see how these people live –17,000 thousand in one square kilometer. Their whole lives take place in this tight, haphazardly constructed enclave. The Palestinians don’t have passports and are limited to taking few available jobs. There are 73 forbidden job categories for Palestinians which include even the most basic jobs at the local KFC. Most men work as day laborers and the financial results are evident in the camps. Poverty is a given and the results are evident here. In one of the frequent introductions instigated by our bubbly Kathy and one of the grandmothers we catch a glimpse at a typical apartment. A room no larger than a master bedroom closet in any American suburban household is home to five family members, including one newborn baby. The clearly exhausted mother sits in the street while her newborn sleeps inside in the slightly cooler air of the concrete floor. The wall is flanked with five short palettes next to a small cabinet. I’m told the kitchen does double duty as the bathroom.
Around every corner, we see groupings of boys, racing in the streets, some pushing deflated soccer balls but most playing elaborate games with toys guns. They pull the guns out of their pants and shoot at one another from around corners. The loud bangs startle us and then a jackhammer starts its heavy consistent drill or a construction worker yells to get out of the way, a two by four is coming down. There are multiple times when we have to run to avoid getting hit by an errant bucket, stream of water or debris from construction.
We are drenched in sweat, dusty and thirsty when we arrive at our appointment at the local school. There’s been a miscommunication as to the time of our arrival and the children have been waiting for us and stand at attention at the stairs gaping at us with huge smiles while we take photos. The children are released and on the top floor we sit and drink thick apricot juice and water provided by the schoolmistress. She points proudly at the children’s art – crayoned pictures of Israeli bombs depicting the most recent war of Gaza war of 2009. “The greatest hope of these children is to return to their homeland,” she tells us. One cannot help but wonder what kind of hopes and dreams are being nurtured with these children in the camps.