Throughout my conscious adult life I have been aware that Lebanon has been a war zone. Not a war that the UK was involved in but always there on the news, just after the politician's sleaze and before the sport. Images of groups of men barely discernable as soldiers carry out wounded children from rubble, crying mothers pleading to camera and angry elders shouting like I should understand them. Familiar scenes of destruction and abject human misery. I was always aware that I was glad it wasn’t me and probably never would be. Interesting that I remember the names of the reporters more than the issues. Kate Adie, John Snow, Marie Colvin(RIP). There’s a career in misery.
These images and names such as the PLO, Yasser Arafat, The West Bank,Intafada, Hezbola they have always been there but I never completely understood what it was all about who was fighting who, why and where.
I did know that Palestine was involved and that I had signed plenty of petitions on stalls in town and at festivals demanding that Palestinians be repatriated to their homeland as they had been unfairly evicted from their land by the formation of Israel. But it was somehow so distant and out of my hands undoubtedly wrong but so is so much in the world from Tescos to Westminster.
Within 20 minutes of meeting Yasser and Hibba from Nabaa I realised that the situation in Lebanon was far more complicated for me to have ever understood yet so heinously awful and unjust that I was embarrassed I didn't know more.
I had come to Lebanon to make a film about the work NABAA does in the Palestinian refugee camps there. Made up of both Palestinians and Lebanese they work in both communities helping the most marginalised members improve their lives through education and support systems. I am simplifying things, but it a nutshell that the kernel:
They spend their lives making other people’s better.
Anyway you look at it Lebanon needs a lick of paint. All the buildings are within what could be described as the sandy band of the colour spectrum. Anywhere between a light yellowy sand to a slightly more committed brown To further enforce the uniformity, the rock is the same colour and everything else is covered in dust from that rock. Nearly all the buildings are new and many of the slightly older are pockmarked with bullet holes.There is a sameness that contradicts the variety of its people.
This is a land that has been on the boil for a long time. Jew fighting Muslim fighting Muslim fighting Christian. Shia are a majority then Sunni then Christian, Jew then me.
Two weeks ago Sunni and Shia were battling in Tripoli. Snipers had a central roundabout in a complete seizure for four days.
However Lebanon was not as I expected, I imagined a conservative Islamic society, djellabahs and veils but no; men in shorts, lots of women without headscarves, driving and smoking. You see more headscarves in Cardiff.
When we pass a woman in a burkah, my taxi driver tuts and tells me that is not traditional and that often women were paid to dress like that by Islamisist groups that want to make it popular and start to spread a radical Islam.
One thing I do know is the muezzin’s call to prayer from the mosque next to my hotel was the most melodic and beautiful I have ever heard, every time it made me stop what I was doing and listen with profoundly wonderful feeling almost a yearning - it was like a spell. Even at 4:30 – my early morning Allahrm call
My first morning in Saida 40km south of Beirut, Yasser came early to pick me up and we went straight off to film. I had only been awake for an hour and I learnt more about Middle Eastern history than in my entire life, I found myself looking at an 18 yr old with a semi automatic rifle flicking through my passport. We were entering Ein el Helweh camp, apart from the barbed wire; anti tank blockades and checkpoint it's the same as the rest of the town. Quite strange really one minute you are passing through streets with shops and apartment blocks and then you pass through this blockade and you are in a Palestinian ghetto, you wouldn't know it unless you were told ;The people look the same; there are shops, kids going to school, taxis and old people smoking shisha pipes It just looks like a slightly poorer area. But this is a refugee camp, set up in 1948 and still occupying the same ground area just with 75,000 people squeezed into where there used to be 20,000.
I meet kids whose parents were born in these camps but are unable to move out, they can come and go freely but are not permitted to work at anything apart from manual labour. They can get a degree but they can't get a job with it. I meet a kid who tells me that there are 67 jobs he is not allowed to do. He was visibly angry, no work no money no girlfriend.
These are a people born in Lebanon but without a Lebanese nationality, Palestinians that are not allowed into Palestine can’t even go south towards the border. They are not allowed to own property the image of their homeland is only in the older generation’s memories. Areas in the camps are named after the villages their parents were run out from in 1948 by the Zionists with the backing of the UK and the rest of the west.
Often whole extended families occupy buildings, It was meant to be a temporary measure but they are a permanent fixture
The more I learn the more I resent the robbing of land from Jordan Syria and Palestine to form Israel, on what grounds? A three thousand year old story. How was that heist ever going to be pulled off without any repercussions? It was an act that was bound to cause trouble. I don’t know too much but I can see that.
What if in three thousand years time Israel was to be divided up and the land given back ? And that begs the question of what can be done ?
”For a start give the Palestinian refugees equal rights” Yasser says.
There are seven camps in Lebanon holding about 600,000 Palestinian refugees, this number is on the increase because of the flow of souls fleeing from Syria. NABAA is working here too trying to identify their immediate needs and sort out schooling for the children – many of whom have not learnt English the medium of learning in the schools. It’s a mess, they have no Government to help them, and any children born have no nationality to claim. They have as many rights as a Martian without the front page potential.
Yasser grew up in a camp himself, at 16 he volunteered with Save the Children UK and then got a job with them. In 2004 he set up NABAA, their aim was to be non partisan and unaffiliated. There are plenty of local NGOs working in the camps but they have political or religious connections. They only help their own, so you have to join them if you need them. I ask in one camp Rashidye in the South how many different political and religious groups exist and after a bit of counting I was told 27. 27 groups in one camp ! – it is like Life of Brian but it’s not even slightly funny.
Through all of this NABAA stay independent and even organise a council that brings them together to discuss certain cases. Their independence is valued by all.
Yasser is always calm, driving with one hand and waving to people that know him and fielding phone calls from EU and UN agencies they all want a bit of him because the people trust him as he's in it for them not his faction. His ring tone is Hotel California, annoyingly I find myself singing it intermittently, a couple of times we join in a chorus together
“Welcome to the Hotel California…”God it’s been years since I sung that
No foreigners are allowed in the camps without permission and strictly no journalists. Lebanon doesn't want it's problem broadcast. Sometimes we sail effortlessly through the barbed wire gates whilst at others we are held up for an hour. At Naharel-Bared near Tripoli I have to change cars leaving my camera with Yasser and I travel in with a musician. We construct a story that we met on facebook and I have come to study music with him . After 10 minutes of questioning I am allowed in but had to leave my passport with Security.
The madness is, once inside it is lawless; there is no police force, no courts, solicitors or rights. Cases of rape, murder and robbery go unchecked. Adults with power regularly abuse children and nothing is done apart for those who reach out to NABAA. Lebanon's most wanted criminals live within Camp boundaries and are untraceable.
An unregulated state within a state that is the polar opposite of the the free festival movement in Britain
Yet there is a veneer of ordinary life, there are souks, schools, and mosques, market prices are cheaper than outside the camps and people travel from outside the camps to shop. It's busy, hot and noisy the housing varies , some camps are oppressive blocks separated by winding shoulder width paths or open sewers, that contaminate drinking water. Mains electric wires form giant cobwebs at every junction impossibly entwined but someone knows what to do and thevery house has power. Shockingly (sorry) amongst these wires are the mains water pipes.
In another camp there was an area of two high blocks of shipping containers adapted for living in, originally a temporary measure as the previous structures were shelled to rubble after some fanatics did a bomb raid on the Lebanese army and hid in the camp, hundreds of innocents were killed. They are dark hot and oppressive and no place to live full time let alone grow up in. I visited an after school club that NABAA organizes that offers reading music and painting activities to the children, they love it – anything would be better than sitting in a 3 metre square container watching your dad smoke a shisha (naragileh it’s called) and hearing your neighbours argue in 35 degree heat.
What's amazing is that the different groups live within a few metres of each other and I could film on one street and not another, groups of blokes with guns have their security points and I am generally chaperoned by a member of the joint council with a revolver on his hip, I never felt threatened apart from the gates in and out of the camps
And I was greeted warmly and allowed to film freely.
Generally people want to get on with their lives, survive in their enforced captivity, living the legacy of previous decision makers’ mistakes.
How long can this go on? It is quite easy to see how extremists and fundamentalists have hijacked the Palestinian cause as their own, Yasser gets furious not in our name he says how dare they? It’s not for Iran or anyone else to fight the west because of the Palestine situation. They make matters worse because people associate Palestine with problems and don’t care about us.
Meanwhile no progress has been made in 65 years; Man Has been to the moon and back whilst in these camps generations come and go never having been given their basic Human right of a nationality and a passport, a homeland – Article 13, 18 and 21 in the declaration of Human rights I believe.
It seems to me that the UN is guilty of extreme hypocrisy and the longer it goes on the more volatile the area will become.
This spinning earth is actually a giant snowball out of control inexorable ,set in motion by decision makers and the powerful who still think they are in control but actually spend their time and efforts grappling for a handhold on the untenable.
Lebanon is a beautiful country similar in climate and geography to southern Spain, it has wonderful food, blue Mediterranean waters ancient ruins and sadly a lot of modern ruins and 600,000 prisoners who may like to visit there on holiday but don't want to be there.
Yasser tells me the reason he has Hotel California on his phone is because it sums up the situation so well.
Welcome to the Hotel California
You can check out any time you like but you can never leave!
And just earlier I had been thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell...