The Grave Digger of Nahr al-Bared Camp
The work assigned to a gravedigger does not seem pleasant to most people, let alone the work one is tasked with in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Said Swaidan, who is responsible for the Khaled Bin al-Walid cemetery at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon seems to be at ease while carrying out his various duties as head of the cemetery.
But the camp has seen a high number of deaths in the past month. The siege of Nahr al-Bared by the Lebanese army in August 2007 and its delayed reconstruction has led to the cemetery being overcrowded.
This has added yet another responsibility to the gravedigger’s list of tasks: to check if the bodies that were buried five years ago have decomposed, making the grave available to take another corpse. This is done only if the person being buried in a particular plot is related to the person who originally was buried at the grave site, in accordance with religious and social practices.
Swaidan is concerned about the increase in the number of deaths at the camp after 17 people passed away in one month (15 December 2011 - 15 January 2012). Even more significant is the fact that apart from two people who were between the ages of 60 and 70, those who died over the course of the month in question were between the ages of 30 and 40. Most of these people died due to heart disease.
Today, Swaidan reports that there is only enough space left for 12 new graves.
Such a sudden rise of deaths poses several questions about the health and living conditions of the camp’s residents.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recently handed over a health center to the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS). Nahr al-Bared residents largely agree that the much-needed center’s quality of care is low in comparison to the medical services that used to be offered to the camp’s residents.
According to Ahmad Mohammad Abdo, a member of the camp’s popular committee who participated in the handover ceremony, the clinic is larger than a dispensary and smaller than a hospital.
Former director of the camp, Haj Abu Imad al-Lubani, shares Swaidan’s concern. He says that his 32-year-old nephew Hassan suddenly died of a heart attack while he was having lunch, and that Hassan’s 38-year-old brother, Saleh, also died of a heart attack. Al-Lubani adds that the camp’s medical statistics indicate that 35 percent of its residents suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Saleh Abdel Rahim, head of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front in the north, explains that he has grown tired, like other officials, of managing problems that would have been considered simple if it were not for the camp’s complicated reality.
For instance, he has to obtain a permit in order to use the field located directly behind the cemetery to bury the dead. He says sarcastically: “There is nothing left for the camp’s residents to do except to visit the Grand Mufti of Lebanon and ask for a fatwa in order to burn our dead or throw them in the sea.”
The suffering in Nahr al-Bared starts well before the grave. Families living in prefabricated housing units at the Nahr al-Bared camp endure daily hardships as they wait for their homes to be rebuilt after they were destroyed in the summer of 2007.
In addition to the well-worn sewage network that they must use year-round, their misery is increased by virtue of living in these “metal boxes,” particularly during winter.
As with every winter, the number of people suffering from flu and cold is significantly higher among residents of the prefabricated housing units than those who live in other areas of the camp.
Director of the camp’s al-Shifaa dispensary, Tawfik al-Asaad, explains to Al-Akhbar that “residents of the prefabricated housing units suffer twice as much from seasonal illnesses, such as flu and cold, than do other residents of Nahr al-Bared camp.”
In the same context, al-Asaad reveals that his dispensary “examines about 20 cases per day on average, half of whom live in prefabricated housing. This shows that these temporary shelters have become a swamp for illnesses that spread during both winter and summer, due to their inadequate health conditions.”
Al-Asaad explains that “these houses, which are [essentially metal boxes], are like refrigerators during winter, and ovens during summer. This results in health complications for most of their residents, particularly the children and the elderly. This is reflected in the fact that patients who live in prefabricated housing require a longer period of treatment and additional health care [compared to] those living elsewhere.”
According to al-Asaad, treatment and health care “are not available the way they should be.” He says that “the perpetual power outages fail to provide permanent heating for residents of the prefabricated housing units. Furthermore, electrical heaters cannot be operated using power from private generators provided by UNRWA.”
The suffering of residents in prefabricated housing is not only restricted to winter. In summer they face conditions that are just as difficult to live in. The high temperatures inside the “metal rooms” turn life into a living hell that is unbearable in every sense. This contributes to the spread of diarrhea, diseases which induce vomiting, and a host of other illnesses.
Furthermore, rodents, poisonous insects, and snakes can be found inside as well as outside the units during the summer.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.