I held my breath as Fadi and I tried to walk nonchalantly past the Lebanese soldiers guarding each entry into Ayn en-Helweh, a lawless outpost off-limits to even the Lebanese military, and run by armed militias including the PFLP (People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine), Amar, Hamas, and Hizbullah. To mention the name of the biggest Palestinian refugee camp, home to more than 80,000 refugees, was to invite gasps of disbelief and wide-eyed looks of terror.
A couple months ago a ten-day civil war resulted in the death of many within the camp, and stories of two Spanish journalists attacked when they entered the camp uninvited a few weeks ago scared off even most journalists. Few, if any, Americans have been to Ayn en-Helweh, but I decided to disregard the warnings of Shana from the American embassy, the political officer from the Lebanese embassy in Jordan and others who told me not to go. I wanted to see this bastion of lawlessness that even Syria did not enter, and interview a man who had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for his alleged role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
We made it through the checkpoint without attracting attention – Fadi is from Ayn en-Helweh and I tried to look as ‘Lebanese’ as possible. “That’s the hospital Israel bombed during the war where all the Red Cross refugees had gone for safety,” Fadi told me, pointing to a big yellow building. “There’s no way they didn’t know it was a hospital, with their intelligence and all.” We walked past the cement walls broken by colorful curtains marking the entry ways to hovels housing far too many people. “Disease is a big problem here since it’s so overcrowded,” Fadi told me, explaining that the camp had originally been built to house only 25,000 people.
We walked down the hot, dusty main street at the bottom of the camp where Ibrahim Hamid, covered in grease, was working on a car. Fadi arranged for me to interview this man wanted by the Lebanese, Syrian, Cypriot and American governments who had turned down requests, accompanied by money, for previous interviews. Fadi is an aspiring journalist, and I took the opportunity to observe first-hand during the day what his strengths and weaknesses as a journalist were, and how he could benefit from a Middle East journalism training center.
After talking to Ibrahim we made our way past towering heaps of decomposing garbage to a center which Fadi had attended that offers free education, dental care and youth programs to children whose fathers were killed in the war or the resistance. Unlike the kindergarten in Borj el-Brajne where pictures of babies punctured by bullets and toddlers throwing stones at Israeli soldiers graced the walls, this center stressed the need for peace. A tree with wishes for peace for all mankind written on its leaves hung on the wall opposite colorful declarations that “Normalization with the Occupation contradicts the Right of Return” and “Return is an inalienable and non-negotiable Right.” The 150 kids served by the center (which is funded by Japanese) learn that Palestine is their home and they should want to return. After interviewing a woman who runs the center Fadi and I headed toward the headquarters of the PFLP.
At the office of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine we talked to some of the members about the organization’s goals, their means toward achieving those goals, and the work they do with the youth in the camp. Mohammed told me the PFLP is no longer a militia (since 1998) but a political group. The Kalashnikov he sleeps with under his bed seems to tell a different story, although when you live in an area where you must walk past wanted men and killers, small arms may be the only means of survival.
Posted By Courtney Radsch (Lebanon)
Posted Aug 26th, 2003