The War's Refugees

Lebanese Families Find Shelter at Palestinian Camp

A woman stands in her home a day after Israeli airstrikes hit the Rashidiya refugee camp, where Palestinians have been joined by more than 1,000 Lebanese.
A woman stands in her home a day after Israeli airstrikes hit the Rashidiya refugee camp, where Palestinians have been joined by more than 1,000 Lebanese. (By Tanya Habjouqa -- Bloomberg News)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

RASHIDIYA CAMP, Lebanon, July 24 -- From the beginning, Hassan Madani was already a casualty of war.

For six years, the lanky 35-year-old welder had coped with a frail state of mind. Then the bombs started falling nearly two weeks ago, and his family grew worried. They tried to bring him to the hospital, but the roads snaking out of their town of Deir Qanun al-Nahr were too perilous. They tried to soothe his nerves, but he began to break.

In a night of especially fierce bombing, he climbed a cellular tower and screamed: "Don't hurt me, my son or my wife." He circled around his disabled son, they recalled. "God protect you," he muttered. As the war wore on, Madani tried halfheartedly to kill himself, drawing a black plastic bag over his head.

"We were worried what he might do," his wife, Sikna Ali Ahmed, said Monday, her eyes swollen red.

His brother, Adnan, nodded. He recalled a sense of foreboding. "The war brought us here," he said.

Here is Rashidiya, where Madani's family and more than 1,000 other Lebanese have fled their homes to seek shelter in a Palestinian refugee camp, its 18,000 inhabitants themselves exiles for nearly six decades. They began arriving a week ago by foot, minibus and car, from villages like Marwaheen, Qlaile and Mansuri. They trudged through streets shaded by bird's nests of electricity wires and sought shelter in homes and U.N.-run schools. Now they wait, abandoned, in a camp whose residents already feel forgotten.

"It's kind of an irony really. It's almost a joke what's going on," said Ibrahim al-Ali, a 26-year-old Palestinian social worker in the camp. "The irony is that refugees are accepting citizens from their own country."

By the standards of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, some of the world's most forsaken locales, Rashidiya is better than most. Compared with the rest of southern Lebanon these days, it is a veritable haven, located on the sea just south of Tyre. In a region where authority has largely collapsed, its own administration remains intact. Electricity is still on, and virtually every shop is open, selling items that are scarce in Tyre: powdered milk, chicken and medicine. Gasoline is less than one-third the price of that in Tyre. With six of Tyre's seven bakeries closed, the one here has doubled its capacity, providing 3,000 free loaves to families in nearby villages.

More important, though, the camp remains safe, as safety goes these days in southern Lebanon.

"A disaster in Lebanon is a disaster for all of us," said Hajj Rifaa Shanaa, a Palestinian official in the camp, with a painting of Yasser Arafat behind his desk. "The only reason they come here is that they look for a place where there is no bombing."

"In days like these, politics are something else," he added.

Loss, fear and frustration echo through conversations among the mainly Shiite Muslim Lebanese in the south, the community from which Hezbollah draws its support. There is anger at Israel and the United States, too. But a sense of abandonment, already manifest in Rashidiya, is perhaps the most powerful. The sentiments of the Shiites intersect with the faded, generation-old Palestinian slogans that adorn the camp's concrete walls and cinder-block homes. "Today Gaza, tomorrow all of Palestine," one poster reads. "Revolution continues, until victory," another declares.

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