CHAPTER V: SHATILA
“In the 70 years Shatila has stood, multiple generations have grown up in that place, and as the faces have aged the stories of struggle have become intergenerational.”
Shatila is the remnant of the human spirit in the dereliction of hope. For 70 years it has stood on the outskirts of Beirut, and is without a doubt the largest and perhaps saddest of all the refugee camps I was allowed to visit. To walk into Shatila is to gain a new understanding of what a refugee camp can be. It is a massive, towering labyrinth, a seemingly endless ghetto. Its broken and rotting buildings look like elderly trees whose roots can no longer grip the soil, weakening and flirting with collapse. The weaving alleys bare the camp’s veins as exposed power lines hanging low and reaching out to every broken surface, water droplets constantly hitting newly tapped connections. Every year multiple people die as a result of wet wires and lack of maintenance. The derelictstructures themselves house the generations lasting in the face of this camp’s desertion by the outside world. Often there are whole families crammed into tiny rooms in these decomposing buildings.
“Shatila is the remnant of the human spirit in the dereliction of hope.”
Conservative population estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 individuals living in Shatila, but some estimates go as high as 50,000 or more. The reality is that it is nearly impossible to accurately know. The first time I was taken there I could smell the camp even before I entered. A full block from the entrance wafted the scent of poor sanitation, sewage, a chaos of bodies and stale cigarettes. The cacophony of motorbikes and merchants yelling in the corridors rang out day and night, and Palestinians of all ages moved about, trying to pass the time or find the next hustle in hopes of bringing home the barest essentials of survival.
In the 70 years Shatila has stood, multiple generations have grown up in that place, and as the faces have aged the stories of struggle have become intergenerational. From wars and massacres to drugs and unemployment, the camp itself has rarely offered its residents a true taste of security. The Palestinians who reside there came to escape the bloodshed of their homeland, but even today they can’t ensure their children’s safety. As refugees Palestinians have fewer work options, and as a people they face longstanding cultural bias in Lebanon, so many of the camp’s residents exist in a constant state of struggle, simply hoping to endure from one day to the next.
“…the refrigerator was barren, and all four people who shared the floor of her single room were left to wonder how they would find any food that day.”
This desperation has led to the rise of black market economies within the camps as refugees struggling to afford their bills turn to less legal methods of securing their daily bread. Many people told me drugs and guns had become prevalent in the camps, both as means of making money, and for many as means of escape. The person I spent the most time with there was a woman named Amal. The first day I met her she took me to her son’s grave, and spoke to me about the loss. She talked about how the youth of the camp have no real options for escape, and the poverty and hopelessness have led many people there to early graves. At 52 years old, she has lived her whole life in that camp and has already had to bury a child and a grandchild.
“Many people told me drugs and guns had become prevalent in the camps, both as means of making money, and for many as means of escape.”
As we walked down the narrow streets and she described her loss, we strolled by children playing with empty bottles as toys, an elderly man sweeping rotting trash from his small doorway. Inside Amal’s home the refrigerator was barren, and all four people who shared the floor of her single room were left to wonder how they would find any food that day. This was a question they’d asked themselves continuously over a lifetime in Shatila, a question most of the people who live there will spend their lives asking.