Today we remember all of the victims and also the survivors of the brutal Sabra and Shatila massacre 40 years ago. We share with you these reflections from Dr. Olfat Mahmoud, a community leader and director of one of our partners, on the massacre and also the current situation for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
by Dr. Olfat Mahmoud, Director of Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization in Lebanon
Forty years ago today, innocent Palestinian women, children and elderly men were massacred in Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon. Foreign doctors and nurses working in Lebanon reported witnessing defenseless civilians being shot while forced to sit next to a large recently dug pit. It is estimated that more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in the massacre. It was horrific, and although it was 40 years ago, I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was working as a nurse for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society during the massacre and the fear I felt at the time has never left me. I live with uncertainty and insecurity that has increased as the situation in Lebanon deteriorates. I still have nightmares about the massacre which increase each year as the anniversary approaches. I am not the only person who feels like this. Palestinians in Lebanon live with the fear of violence, they have no rights, and worry that war could breakout again and that there will be more massacres.
Forty years after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, life for Palestinians in Lebanon is a continuous struggle. Poverty is increasing. The economic crises in Lebanon limits employment opportunities, the currency is depreciating and there is inflation so many families cannot afford to feed themselves or to buy clean drinking water. Gas and electricity have become very expensive so in the winter, in parts of Lebanon, people will die because they cannot heat their homes.
The refugee camps are overcrowded and the buildings are unsafe and beginning to fall down killing and injuring people. Two young girls were orphaned after their mother died of cancer and their father, who was caring for them, was killed when their home collapsed on top of him. A mother and son sustained injuries when their house collapsed and although they recovered, they are traumatized and no longer feel safe in their home which is the place where people should feel safe. UNRWA is supposed to repair dwellings in the camps but it has no budget for this. Hundreds of families are waiting for their homes to be repaired and are constantly worried that the house will collapse with people inside. Families lack the money to repair their homes and, even if they have the money, the Lebanese authorities restrict building materials from being taken in the camps.
Any savings that families might have had were used during the Covid-19 pandemic because people were unable to work and businesses closed. Families who had worked hard for decades and put their savings in the banks cannot access them because of restrictions on withdrawing USD brought in because of the financial crisis in Lebanon. The financial crisis is the result of widespread corruption and mismanagement among the ruling elites, yet ordinary people in Lebanon, including Palestinian refugees, as the ones paying the price.
The health of Palestinians suffers because of the poor living conditions, poor nutrition and the daily stresses of life. By early middle age, many Palestinians have chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. UNRWA health services are limited and overstretched. They provide little regular support for chronic health conditions and the medications are not available in the UNRWA pharmacies. Families struggle to support their sick relatives. Some may receive occasional help from NGOs or political factions, but there is no regular support from anywhere so wondering where the money will come from for the necessary medications is a constant worry. The situation has become even more difficult since the financial crisis in Lebanon as the generic brand medications for these conditions are no longer available. People can spend weeks searching the pharmacies in Lebanon or asking friends and relatives if they can send medication from abroad. Sometimes the medication arrives too late.
Palestinians in Lebanon do not have their full rights – they do not have the right to work, the right to own property or the right to freedom of movement. The situation in Lebanon is so difficult and there are so few opportunities for Palestinians to improve their situation that increasing numbers of Palestinians are paying to leave Lebanon on the “death boats.” These boats are the ones that take desperate migrants to Europe in search of a better life. Many sell all their belongings and borrow money from friends and family to buy a place on a boat. If they do not go, are retuned to Lebanon by the European authorities or stopped by the Lebanese police before leaving the country, they often have no home to return to, no furniture, possessions or job – they are destitute. Others that make it to the boat know that the risk of drowning during the journey is high, but they feel that they have no choice. Staying in Lebanon is more of a risk than embarking on a dangerous journey to Europe. Palestinians in Lebanon believe that they have no future.
We must not forget what happened to the Palestinians in Lebanon forty years ago, but more importantly, we must work together to end the ongoing injustices and poverty that Palestinian refugees face in Lebanon today.