Dbayeh: The Other Palestinian Refugee Camp
Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012
“I’ll tell you about the camp,” says the young Facebook activist who welcomed me to Dbayeh refugee camp. “I’ll introduce you to the people so you can talk to them and understand firsthand the reality of what’s going on in the camp.”
The complexities of the Dbayeh camp do not begin with the problems of the waterworks project — on which millions of dollars has been spent — nor do they end with the denial of Palestinian identity imposed on the population, which is being forced to live “under the same roof” with a historically political enemy.
The camp was built to house Palestinian refugees from al-Bassa, Haifa, and Jaffa. Initially, the refugees lived in shacks with shared bathrooms. One resident recalls how in those days the Lebanese intelligence services would infiltrate the camp, snatching whoever they wanted, and preventing any kind of political activity or affiliation with parties.
That was in 1965. They didn’t call it Dbayeh back then. That’s the name of the region where it is located. The camp was named after the martyr Hana Eid, who was killed in Jordan.
In 1976, fighting broke out between the people of the camp and the parties of the Lebanese Right: the Phalange Party, the National Liberal Party, and the Cedar Guards. The camp fell after five days.
One resident remembers how the militias roamed the camps demanding that everyone gather in the soccer field. The weather was cold, but they forced the families to sit in the mud. From the morning hours until sunset, they would pull the men aside and beat them. They ransacked homes and killed 70 people, among them twelve youngsters no older than fifteen years of age. They pulled them out of a class at the Bible school in the camp and executed them on the spot.
“They took over the entire camp,” he says. After terrorizing the residents they made their way to Tal al-Zaatar, the site of the infamous 1976 massacre. They say that Phalange leader Amine Gemayel stopped a bulldozer from destroying the camp, but “his men ruined everything.”
“They occupied many of the homes. Many were forced to leave the camp, and the militia sold their houses for 5,000 Lebanese lira,” he continued.
The camp remained under the control of the militias until 1989 when a large part of it was destroyed. Those who remained were forced to cooperate with them, i.e. by joining the parties that the militias belonged to.
The problems vary between monopolization of power and its use against the population.
A man in his sixties tries to explain what happened with the church council. He says that the council cannot be responsible for the behavior and extremism of some of the people in the camp, such as those who had previously been hostile towards our presence. This council, according to him, is an vital part of the camp as it has founded important schools in Lebanon, from which individuals such as Leila Khaled graduated.
In the Dbayeh camp, new headquarters for the council were opened. There are doubts about its “effectiveness,” especially as it is run by someone with no connection to the camp’s residents.
In fact, many criticize what they are doing in the camp. For example, the council proposed to the residents of the camp a “relief fund” whereby each family would pay LL5,000 ($3) a month to help families of the deceased cover the LL1 million ($667) cost of a funeral.
Nearly 250 families participated in the project, but residents discovered after a while that the church had paid the expenses for the first ten funerals, while the council had taken the money for these funerals from the refugees.
They also “discovered” that the council had included in the documents of the project a clause giving it the ability to create a local committee in the name of the camp, which is illegal since members are unelected and not acknowledged by the Palestinian embassy or the ministry of the interior.
In some areas, the residents of the camp have taken matters into their own hands, founding for the first time an athletics committee. It has received the approval of UNRWA and carries out different activities for free while being under the authority of UNRWA and far from the reach of the Lebanese parties.
Those working on this committee say that the problem is not with the council itself, but rather, with the people in its headquarters in the camp. They say, “at the very least, it should not be possible for an official in the center to be the coordinator of the Lebanese Armed Forces in the camp.”
On the other hand, there is visible pressure on the camp regarding water. The residents are tired of their constant need to buy water (which can cost upwards of LL50,000 or $33 per week). Women began protesting in front of UNRWA headquarters last week because the situation has become “unbearable.”
UNRWA has carried out a waterworks project in the camp, but upon inspection, one finds many flaws. Until 1998, Dbayeh itself was supplying the camp with water. Then began what some consider a “sort of game” between influential people in the region. A grant of 90,000 Euros was obtained from the German government to construct a new network in the camp.
Then, “magically,” as they say, the project grew to include the cost of drawing water from 3km away in Bir Tamish, even though Dbayeh is closer. But the residents ask: if the project was in fact implemented, why did UNWRA work on extending a completely new network, in addition to building a new tank? Where did the funds for the German project go?
UNRWA has faced other obstacles from the different government organizations in the region. Lebanese officials told them that they would not allow water to pass before the residents of the camp “participate” in paying water bills. This is a historical precedent. Never before has such a demand been made by UNRWA or the Palestinian organizations. Many refugees suspect that this is a veiled attempt at forcing them to eventually evacuate the camp.
Against the Current
Behind the day-to-day issues in the camp are other, more fundamental problems. There are forces working to make the residents of the camp forget where they came from and what Palestine means to them. They want it to become “a lie,” some residents tell us.
The residents blame the absence of the Palestinian political factions, which has both allowed the Lebanese parties to grow at the expense of the Palestinian cause and made the refugees feel that they have been abandoned. It has become an act of resistance just to say “I am Palestinian” in the camp, residents report.
Imagine a picture of former Phalange head Pierre Gemayel, for example, as one of the residents tells me, hanging in a Palestinian refugee’s home. This symbolizes the paradox and alienation imposed on the residents of the camp.
Dbayeh reminds us of a scene from Elia Suleiman’s most recent film, The Time That Remains, in which Palestinian students enthusiastically sing the Israeli national anthem in Arabic. It is a surreal scene, and one not far from the daily reality of the camp.
Flight of the Refugees
Dbayeh Camp contains almost 1,800 people belonging to the following groups: 110 Lebanese families (53 of them occupying the homes of refugees), 250 Palestinian families, 100 naturalized Palestinian families, and 50 displaced Lebanese families from the southern border villages.
When we look at the statistics regarding the population of the camp, we see that the numbers have dropped from 5,000 in 1997 to 4,000 in 2004, to less then 1,800 by 2009. Thus, the attempts to empty the camp of refugees have been successful.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.