Nahr al-Bared Youth: One Small Step
Published Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Nahr al-Bared Camp, Lebanon - There is something different about the camp. The people have changed. Morale is high. It differs not only from how it used to be, but from the other camps. It feels as if Nahr al-Bared is saying: “Yes, there’s hope.”
All conversations there revolve around the sit-in. How did it begin? Why did it happen? How did it manage to succeed? What has it achieved?
According to the media, the initial cause of the sit-in was an incident in which the army stopped a young motorcyclist inside the camp who was not carrying his ID papers and so tried to flee.
It was a motorcycle then, I ask a group of young men who helped organize the sit-in. They burst out laughing, and point to the rider who was arrested. One of them explains: When reporters approached him and asked if he was the young man with the motorcycle, he denied it. He hadn’t understood the formal Arabic term for “motorcycle” which they had used [and could literally be understood as “flame vehicle”]. He comes up and explains. “I was only riding a motorbike!” he protests. “How was I supposed to know? I thought ‘flame vehicle’ meant missiles or something!”
Although this is Ramadan, it feels like Eid. There is exuberance on peoples’ faces. It takes my young companions half an hour to walk a short distance through the camp, stopping every couple of minutes to greet people and jest, or tell them about the next meeting or activity. “You see that guy?” says my guide. “We used to think he was just a slob, the kind who makes passes at girls and sits around in cafes. We really didn’t expect him to be so conscientious. The young people have got to know each other again, and discovered a strength we didn’t know we had.”
During the sit-in, children would compete to see who could raise more money for the protest fund. “We were surprised,” one of the youth tells me. “We weren’t expecting anything like this. Usually whenever there’s a problem, we see mothers coming out on the streets to take their sons home to keep them safe. This is the first time that not a single mother or father came out to make their children get off the street.”
Right from the start of the sit-in, people spurned the established Palestinian political factions, refusing to allow them to take part or to speak for them. That may help explain why the protestors did not step down from their demands. Yet the young people acknowledge the positive influence of a handful of figures, including teachers and writers, who acted as mentors, joined them on the ground, and provided advice and support. “We have seen young people show they are more aware and effective than well-known veterans on the Palestinian scene,” remarks one.
Organizers of the sit-in have intriguing tales to tell of how Lebanese groups tried to use the protest to turn Nahr al-Bared into part of the patchwork of “enclaves” that has been forming in northern Lebanon.
Within hours of the demonstrations starting, with tensions mounting and people congregating on the streets, a local cleric received a message which he conveyed to the protesters: the “residents of a nearby village” were expressing their solidarity with them, and were willing at any moment to block the roads in their district in support of Nahr al-Bared. “Who did they think they were kidding?” says the middle-aged activist who recounts the incident. The same village sheikh who made the offer had declared the women of the camp to be “spoils of war” during the fighting there in 2007.
He adds that another sheikh also got in touch to say that the people of Minyeh were also prepared to block the roads in their support, “and are awaiting a signal from you.”
An attempt was also made to raise the flag of the Free Syrian Army at the sit-in, but the youth involved was dissuaded verbally. “They wanted to drag the camp to the Wadi Khaled border,” the activist remarks.
These moves were all seen as evidence of the role some factions envisage for the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In addition to the above attempts, followers of Akkar MP Khaled al-Daher set up a roadblock near the army checkpoint outside the camp, in an apparent bid to goad the army and the Palestinians into a broader confrontation, and get the camp to become part of the Salafi-controlled “no-go-area” in northern Lebanon.
After the late-night taraweeh prayers, there are meetings the activists decided to continue holding after ending the sit-in. While the sit-in may be over, they argue, conditions in the camp and for Palestinians in Lebanon are unchanged. The permit system may have been abandoned at Nahr al-Bared, but the searches continue, as does the foot-dragging over the camp’s reconstruction, while the unjust laws remain in force. The protest must therefore persist in different forms, and expand to encompass all the camps and all the problems faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
“What made the sit-in a success and gave us a sense of strength,” says one of the participants, “was the backing we got from the other camps, especially Ain al-HeIweh. That tipped the balance and gave us the upper hand. It showed it was possible for Palestinians to apply pressure and be a force on the ground.”
But not everyone supports the idea of protest. After the meeting breaks up at about 1am, some youths gather outside to smoke, inhaling deeply after a nicotine-deprived day. They are discussing a problem. Five market traders have been complaining about the impact of the sit-in. They objected at the time, and one of them drove at the protesters and dented his vehicle on the barrier they had set up. Now he wants compensation. “Don’t worry,” says one young man, “we’ll go and talk to him calmly. He’ll be ok.”
One gain of the sit-in may be imminent. An outstanding issue with UNRWA and the army had been the Jenin District, a section of the camp that was rebuilt but whose residents were not allowed back. Now it has been agreed that the people may live in their homes.
The barrier of fear has been broken. That phrase is repeated by many, its truth is evident. It has been broken, and something stronger has emerged in its place.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.