Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon – Every time the popping sounds of successive gunshots ring out, Abu Yousef and his wife gather their five children and hide in their kitchen in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Here, they take refuge for hours, sometimes an entire day, until the fighting stops.
“They have guns and missiles,” said Abu Yousef, 48, of the warring Palestinian and hardline factions jostling for leadership within the camp. “The rockets could destroy everything. I can say life is not good in this camp,” he told Al Jazeera.
The family came to Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp from Yarmouk, Syria’s main Palestinian refugee camp. Besides their notable size, the two camps are worlds apart. Before the start of Syria’s ongoing civil war, Yarmouk was not so much a camp as a small city complete with hospitals and schools. Residents were employed as doctors, engineers, civil servants and street vendors; they had a sense of safety.
But in December 2012, a Syrian air force jet bombed the centre of the camp, located near key government institutions, to weed out rebel forces suspected of hiding there. At least eight people died and thousands fled to Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps. Subsequent shelling destroyed most of the camp’s infrastructure and a government-imposed blockade made it impossible to return.
|Abu Yousef and his family arrived from Syria looking to escape the ongoing conflict [Vidya Kauri/Al Jazeera]|
By March 2014, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), over 52,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria were seeking shelter in Lebanon.
Ain al-Hilweh, located just outside the port city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, is known for being a lawless zone. The Lebanese army is not permitted to enter, per the 1969 Cairo agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). With about 80,000 refugees crammed into one square kilometre, the camp is over-crowded, lacks infrastructure and is beset by violence. At Ain al-Hilweh, “the sun doesn’t enter any house”, said Abu Hussein, 57, who was born in the camp and has lived there for most of his life.
As the war in Syria escalated and spilled across Lebanon’s borders, hardline groups penetrated Ain al-Hilweh to train and recruit camp residents to fight alongside the rebels in Syria, said Mahmoud Issa, a former security official for the PLO in Lebanon, who lives in the camp.
Issa has accused the Palestinian movement’s leadership within the camp of not caring enough about the safety of residents, thereby enabling armed Sunni groups such as Jund al-Sham, Fatah al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra to exert their influence. These groups are opposed to the Fatah movement, the strongest of about 19 PLO factions, said Issa, who himself survived an assassination attempt late last year while attending the funeral of a PLO official who was shot outside the camp.
Monir Makdah, head of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a military wing of Fatah, and one of the main groups responsible for providing security within Ain al-Hilweh, said officials are determined to keep residents safe. But he acknowledged financial challenges, noting members of the camp’s security forces earn just $200 per month from the PLO, forcing many to seek work outside the camp.
“Security is getting weaker because of the economic situation of the PLO,” Makdah told Al Jazeera.
Continued fighting between hardline groups and PLO factions has forced some Ain al-Hilweh residents, including Mahmoud Sahman, to live a solitary life with minimal social interaction. Sahman, 20, a part-time construction worker and high-school student, also relocated here from Yarmouk. He describes Ain al-Hilweh as a jungle where only the strongest survive, and believes he is less likely to be in danger if he keeps to himself.
Displaced Palestinians feel more welcome inside the camp than outside.
“I get up, go to work, study, then sleep. I don’t feel safe,” Sahman told Al Jazeera.
Despite the lack of security, Palestinians say they feel more at home inside Ain al-Hilweh than in the broader society, with discriminatory policies and racial tensions stemming from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war still in effect. The war, lasting from 1975 to 1990, resulted in Syria’s military presence in Lebanon for 29 years until 2005.
The Lebanese government’s reluctance to authorise the establishment of new refugee camps for the influx of displaced Syrians has led to skyrocketing rents, according to UNRWA. Syrians also earn almost 40 percent less than Lebanon’s monthly minimum wage of $450, and women are particularly vulnerable to unemployment, according to a report published by the International Labour Organisation this month. Gainful employment is harder for Palestinians to come by as Lebanon prohibits them from working in the public sector and in regulated professions such as medicine, law and engineering.
“They treat us as if we are not human,” said Abu Yousef. In the face of this, however, Ain al-Hilweh residents say they have built a sense of solidarity with each other.
“Displaced Palestinians feel more welcome inside the camp than outside,” Abu Hussein told Al Jazeera. “We are all refugees in the same boat.”