from the November 29, 2004 edition - The Christian Science Monitor

Revisiting the gritty symbol of Palestinian survival - Shatila

By Helena Cobban

BEIRUT - In July 1974, I came to Beirut, a recent college graduate hoping to make a career in journalism. Soon after I arrived, I started teaching English pro bono to a lively group of girls in a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.

One afternoon a week, I would walk into the heart of the camp from a bustling central square where taxi drivers, shoppers, and men returning from work competed noisily for space with vendors selling colorful fresh produce from rickety carts. From the square, a maze of narrow alleys led between thousands of tiny one- and two-story concrete homes. These were the refugees' shelters: it was 26 years since these families had arrived in Lebanon, fleeing from the 1948 fighting inside what had been Palestine.

I would orient myself inside the camp by looking for the yellow-painted mosque that soared above the concrete shelters. I would take a couple of turns and arrive at the home of two of my students: ever-smiling Khadija, who studied hard to make up for her polio-induced lameness, and her giggly younger sister Najat.

Once inside their shelter's heavy door I climbed steep concrete stairs to a space set out as a living room - but along one wall was stacked folded bedding, to be pulled out and used there at night. On a tiny balcony fragrant jasmine, roses, and herbs were planted in old powdered-milk tins.

As the other students trickled in, Khadija or her mother would bring me bitter Arabic coffee and some candy or pastries. And we'd spend 90 minutes conversing in rudimentary English.

When I came back to Lebanon for two months this fall, I wanted to find out what had become of the refugee camp and - if possible - to locate Khadija, Najat, and their friends. I have worried a lot about them over the years.

The camp where they lived was the site of an ugly Israeli-orchestrated massacre in 1982. Then, between 1985 and 1988, it was under almost constant siege from surrounding Lebanese militiamen.

The camp's name? Shatila.

Any place on earth can change a lot in 30 years - but I recognized almost nothing about Shatila. Where the camp had once been sprawling and low-rise, now it had a much smaller footprint, but its buildings towered seven and eight stories high. From the outside, it looked like a single looming structure, a concrete prison sticking up from the lower buildings and market stalls around it.

Inside, where previously there was room in the alleys for neighbors to gather and talk, and enough sun for every family to keep a healthy row of plants, now the individual buildings are so tight-packed that cars cannot enter and pedestrians have to turn sideways to pass each other, and so tall that only a gray, diffused light reaches to ground level, even in midmorning.

The head of a camp women's organization who was showing me around, told me that the pervasive damp and lack of ventilation make respiratory problems rampant. She took me to three special places in and near Shatila.

One was a spot where many of those killed in the 1982 massacre had been buried in a mass grave. It has since been preserved as a memorial. A walled earthen enclosure just bigger than a baseball diamond is ringed with grass planted with white rose bushes and large placards that carry disturbing, grainy photos of the aftermath of the massacre.

Another special spot was the camp mosque, which I did not recognize.

During the fighting of 1985-'88 the Lebanese militia besieging Shatila prevented the camp's people from exiting to bury their dead. So hundreds were buried there, inside the mosque, instead.

After the fighting subsided, skilled builders from the camp community rebuilt the mosque on pillars above that makeshift burial place, which likewise has been preserved as a memorial.

The third place we visited was a kindergarten: four small, pink-painted rooms in a ground-level house where 82 preschoolers sat in pink smocks learning their letters - in Arabic and English - and enjoying a talkative meal break.

The children, like their teachers, parents, and grandparents, are adamant that they do not want to stay in Lebanon. (Most Lebanese, too, are equally determined that they not stay.)

The refugees want to go back to "Palestine." But I did not find out if they would be prepared to move to a Palestinian state in the West Bank rather than returning to the exact properties their grandparents left in the area that became Israel in 1948.

Pending that return, most are determined to stay on in Shatila, which for Palestinians has become a gritty symbol of their nation's survival against great odds.

I found my visit very disturbing. The conditions in which Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon are the worst of any of their countrymen, anywhere.

They are stateless, and the Lebanese government provides no education or healthcare. The beleaguered UN aid agency, UNRWA, offers basic healthcare and schooling (through age 18 for a fortunate minority, and age 15 for the rest). Lebanon bars Palestinians from all professions and most jobs except menial day labor.

Many, perhaps most, of their Lebanese neighbors openly despise them. And of all the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Shatila has the harshest and most unhealthy physical environment, according to a recent EU study.

Still, My Shatila guide, the kindergarten teachers, and other camp residents she introduced me to all continued their work with determination - and with frequent broad smiles on their faces.

My guide seemed to know everyone in Shatila! "Khadija and Najat?" she said thoughtfully when I asked about them.

"Yes, I know that they survived the massacre of 1982.... I think they both ended up in America."

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.