Thursday, July 27, 2006

A tale of two camps

Refugee camps i.e.

In Israel, where according to some estimates 6% of the (total 7 million) population has been displaced by the Hezbollah attacks, it's more like a beach party at this particular camp.
Ilan and his buddies live in a crowded refugee camp set up on the beach in Ashkelon, Israel. All along the street, flags flap in the breeze from the sea. People here seem to love showing off their gym-toned bodies. Tents have been set up everywhere. In one, people practice yoga; next to it others are getting their bodies painted. In another tent Orthodox Jews try to recruit young people. One could easily mistake the place for a nightclub if it weren't for the fact that everyone here has been displaced by a war. Hordes of young people under 25 mill around wearing the same kind of colorful armbands you might see in a hip urban club.

Ilan isn't happy with the color of his armband -- the blue has already faded. Worse yet, blue means he's scheduled for the day's earliest meal-time. Organizers in fact adopted the idea of arm bands from night clubs; here, though, it's a way of arranging staggered mealtimes. In the end that's only difference between this camp at the Israeli beach resort of Ashkelon, just south of Tel Aviv, and an all-inclusive holiday resort.
[Read more: Club Med for Refugees -- Partying in Israel's War Zone from Der Spiegel]

Then there's this camp in Lebanon. Set up for those who fled Palestine. Established in 1950. And it's getting shelled.
Zakia Hamad was three years old when her pregnant mother was killed by the Israeli army on the journey from their home in the occupied Palestinian territories to a life of refuge in Lebanon. In 1988, 40 years later, Hamad's husband, daughter and son were killed by the Israeli military during its occupation of southern Lebanon.

Today, the elderly woman sits slumped on the floor of an underground bunker, in the claustrophobia of the Borj al Barajneh camp south of Beirut. Established in 1950, two years after the creation of Israel drove millions of Palestinians into exile, Borj al Barajneh is home to an estimated 20,000 Palestinians. It's the biggest refugee camp in Lebanon.

All of a sudden, a small boy runs into Hamad's room clutching a red-hot piece of shrapnel from Israeli shells that are exploding metres away with news that her aunt has been wounded by flying glass.

"Oh god," screams Hamad, with tears in her eyes as she waves her arms frantically. "What am I to do? My family has died, my grandchildren have left me. I have nothing here but my medicine and my Quran."
"This camp is a disaster area," says Abu Zaher al-Habet, a member of the Popular Committee that organises camp affairs and deals with NGOs, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). "Ninety percent of the people are unemployed. Sixty percent live below the poverty line. We have no running water normally, only water trucks, and now even those are not making deliveries."
I'm not making a point here, necessarily, putting these two stories together. I'm still generally sympathetic of Israel, though, the misery in Lebanon is real and I don't know that it can justbe shrugged away. Each side in this bitter conflict has its share of narratives of horrific pain. Nor have I ever been a refugee ... I guess, if I were a refugee in a rich country (like the ones in Israel in the article) I'd try to party away to distract me from reality. And yes, I guess, I'd rather be a refugee in a rich country than a refugee in a poor country which is now getting shelled.

Back to our hero from the first camp
Ilan, for his part, wants to stay. In Ukraine he never would have had the money to enjoy this kind of Mediterranean vacation. And with his cheap eastern European clothes and his Ukranian accent he wouldn't have been such a hit with the ladies. Anyone, after all, can use a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and tonight before sunset Ilan wants to find someone to lie down with on the beach. "In the dunes I almost always get lucky," he says, before going back on the make.
[Incidentally, according to UNRWA, about ten percent of Lebanon's population is made of Palestinian refugees, nearly some 400000 people!]

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