BEIRUT: Fiddling with mobile phones, chain smoking and sitting around: enforced idleness is the burden of almost every single resident in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.
Their abysmal situation is the focus of a new film, “A Sip of Coffee,” produced by a-films, an international anarchist film collective presently focusing its efforts on the camp. Those in the collective run film-making workshops within the camp in the hope of promoting film-making as a tool for political activism, a-films activist Ray Smith told The Daily Star. He produced with film along with novice film-maker Mohammad Eshtawi.
Situated 16 kilometers North of Tripoli, Nahr al-Bared used to be a source of pride for its residents – with a thriving economy and bustling market attracting both Lebanese and Palestinian customers, it was the most prosperous of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps. Its luck turned for the worst in 2007 when a militant Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, sought refuge in the camp. A three-month battle between the group and the Lebanese Armed Forces, ending on September 2, resulted in the total annihilation of the camp. Nahr al-Bared’s Palestinian residents found themselves displaced for a second time in history, losing everything they had saved and built up over the last 60 years. Two years on from that devastating war, the camp has been partially cleared of rubble, but the people of Nahr al-Bared remain in limbo: living in temporary housing units as they wait for the reconstruction to begin. Nahr al-Bared’s once robust economy was destroyed along with the camp.
“A Sip of Coffee” revolves around the testimonies of Mohammad, an unemployed camp resident in his twenties, and his father Ziyad. Through their voices, the 26-minute film illustrates the issues that matter most to Nahr al-Bared’s residents: unemployment, reconstruction, displacement and endless, stifling monotony.
Mohammad spends most of his days doing nothing. “Although the week has seven days, we feel as though it only has one day, and it’s always the same one,” he says in the film. “There’s nowhere to go, there are no clubs and no libraries to borrow books to try and educate oneself.”
Mohammad has tried to get a job but there simply aren’t any. What work he can find is often casual day labor. Mohammad’s father Ziyad has also struggled to find work after losing his two shops in the camp’s siege. “After the destruction of Nahr al-Bared and its declaration as a military zone, the economy was reduced to point zero … the camp’s economy depended on the [Lebanese] residents of the Akkar region,” he tells the camera in a resigned voice. He now scrapes money together by fishing and running a makeshift cafe.
Resentment is growing steadily among the camp’s residents as the many promises made to rebuild the destroyed camp falter. The stifling living conditions in the temporary housing units, oppressively hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, only aggravate their anger. “I’m sorry to say it, but we live in cow sheds,” Mohammad says. NGOs call the cramped iron and concrete structures temporary but they feel permanent to many of those struggling inside. “When my family and I gather in the evening, I hardly know where to sit – it’s very crowded,” Mohammad says.
Ziyad shares his frustration. “The population density always causes problem between the families who aren’t used to each other,” he says. Ziyad, like many others, fear they will be displaced forever, and participate in protests urging the authorities to begin immediate reconstruction of the camp.
“People rightfully feel that they’ve lost control over their lives, because their lives are being ‘managed’ by NGOs and UNRWA (the UN agency dedicated to providing assistance to Palestinian refugees), and because their movement is limited by the Army’s checkpoint and permit system,” said Smith.
Although a ceremony was held this March to mark the beginning of reconstruction, nothing has happened since then.
Ziyad appears to have given up hope that Nahr al-Bared will ever be rebuilt, saying he’ll only believe in the promises of officials when he sees construction material entering the camp. “I can’t believe in all these empty promises and lies by [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora and [PLO Representative in Lebanon] Abbas Zaki.”