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Lebanese Families Find Shelter at Palestinian Camp
Upheaval Takes a Displaced Father, Long Unstable, to the Breaking Point

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; A08

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.

"People don't want to feel weakness now," said Ali, the social worker. "They want to feel strong and stand firm. But the hard part will start when they go back to their houses and discover the destruction, the deaths in the family and of their neighbors.

"That's when the sadness will come," he added.

At the U.N.-administered school, the family of Ali Banjak sat in a patch of shade under a leafy tree. The women in the family peeled off leaves of mulukhiya for a dish that, when boiled, has the texture of spinach. Clothes stretched across a green rope, drying in the sun. A blue thermos sat on a ledge, and Banjak listened to a rickety plastic radio, waiting for the batteries to go out. He had just shaved in a green-tinted irrigation canal, guiding his motions in the rearview mirror of a motorcycle parked next to him.

Tugging on his yellow shirt, then his brown khakis, he said, "These have been on for 12 days."

People loitered around a sun-drenched playground. Others sat on desks set along the school walls, painted in the United Nations' white and blue. On the gate hung a simple one-page announcement from Dr. Durid Matar, offering dental appointments for the displaced, "for free as long as the crisis lasts."

"Waiting and waiting," Banjak said. "Waiting for what?"

Banjak's family lived in Shaitiye, a few miles away. Five days before, he said, Israeli helicopters fired on the village. There was no bomb shelter in their house, so after midnight, he, his wife and two children ran to another house with a basement. There, 30 people were packed together, children screaming. They decided to go elsewhere, sneaking a half-mile over a half-hour.

"It felt further than going on foot from here to Beirut," he said.

They finally found a place to hide, a cramped underground room for drying tobacco.

"I thought if we didn't die from the bombing, we'd suffocate to death," Banjak said.

By 4:30 a.m., they left again, finding a garage, where they hid until dawn. "If you die, you die, but if you live through something like this, you're dead every moment: the fear of dying every day, every hour, every minute," he said. Soon after the sun rose, they fled in a white Renault, leaving the door unlocked and their passports at home, taking the clothes they were wearing.

He looked at his children, reluctant to show fear. His 8-year-old son played in the corner. His daughter, 7, wore pink Barbie sandals and twirled the hair of her doll. "The toughest thing is that you're responsible for them. They're frightened and scared that death is everywhere. . . . You feel helpless," he said. "This is the toughest thing as a father."

"There is only fear," added Mufid Mislamani, a 26-year-old neighbor. "And fear brought us here in the first place."

Fear forced the Abad family here five days ago. A gas station was hit in Marwaheen near their house, and they decided to flee. They worried, too, that they wouldn't find milk, medicine and food for the 2-month-old baby, Razan Hatem Obeid.

"There's no safe place," said 25-year-old Fatima Abad. "Nowhere in Lebanon is safe. But this was the closest to us."

Nuzha Abad, the 76-year-old matriarch, standing amid a gaggle of her daughters, nieces, cousins and grandchildren, interrupted her. "We feel like we're beggars!" she shouted. "Look at our daughters, look at our children! Where is the dignity?"

The Palestinian residents have brought food -- figs, olives, tomatoes, eggplant, okra and bananas -- much of it cultivated in the small gardens that dot the seaside camp, guarded by Palestinian militiamen. But Rashidiya is an exception. There is hardly anything organized to assist the displaced in the rest of southern Lebanon, rekindling old but enduring resentments among Shiites of the south over traditional neglect by a government that once treated them as second-class citizens.

"For us in the south, for a long time, there's never been a state," said Banjak, sitting on a yellow cushion adorned with a floral pattern. "There's no state to protect the people. There's no state to care for them." His friend, Mislamani, nodded his head. Billions were spent rebuilding Beirut, he said, "and there's not one bomb shelter, not one, in the entire south."

Blasts thundered on the horizon. "They're telling us they're still here," Banjak said, smiling. "Don't forget we're here!"

He listened for a moment, then turned more serious. "I don't want a house. I don't want luxury items -- a car, a satellite television or those things," Banjak said. "I want a shelter. I'll sell my house just so that I can build a shelter."

Down the street was Mohammed al-Asmar's family. A driver, he lost his car when a gas station was bombed nearby. He fled on foot with his wife and six children a week ago. On this day, he was tired, grim and angry.

"War after war," Asmar said. "Me, personally, I've left my house more than 50 times."

He shook his head. "We're not strong enough to live through more wars," he said.

A few hours before Asmar spoke, Madani's brother, Adnan, and his wife, Sikna, were looking for him in the camp.

"We tried to find him," the brother said. "We looked everywhere."

Madani had walked with his son, Ghassan, 9, to the beach, a trash-strewn strip of land with two rusted soccer goals. Tires were buried in the sand near two shabby fishing boats with peeling paint, lapped by waves. Madani took off his red leather watch and put it on his son's wrist. He then tied his son's left hand to his own right with a white nylon rope a little thicker than a shoelace. Madani waded 400 yards into the water, past a strip of turquoise water, then blue, then another strip of turquoise, recalled those on the beach who saw him.

"Somebody came running toward me," said Hassan Ajami, a 31-year-old fisherman. "Come here! Come here!"

By the time Ajami swam toward Madani, he had drowned his son and, some witnesses said, was trying to drown himself. Ajami said he took the boy, whose belly was distended, and tried to resuscitate him. Others grabbed Madani and pulled him to shore.

"Why did you kill your son?" Ajami asked him.

It was the question his family struggled with Monday, stranded in a small concrete shack in a camp not their own. A ways away, the boy was buried in a plot of sand, circled with seven concrete blocks. A piece of cardboard marked the grave.

"He was fine until the war started," Adnan said of his brother. "We wanted to protect him from himself."

They recounted the days: sleepless nights, relentless bombing, flight and a fear that never faded.

"He didn't know what he was doing," Adnan said. "Even now, I don't think he's aware his son is dead."

His wife leaned her head out the door, a dreary brown. She had been crying, her cheeks still moist.

"He lost everything," she said softly.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company