My latest trip to Lebanon, nearly ended before it had started – and nearly finished before it had ended. I will start with the last point.
Shortly before I flew to Beirut to continue my work with a very dear friend of mine – Oyoun Shabayta – the UK had brought in some new travel restrictions. A ban on hand luggage was imposed on flights to Britain from a number of Middle East countries, including Lebanon. Items no longer allowed on as hand luggage included cameras, laptops and external hard drives. And being a photographer – I could see this was going to be a problem.
For some odd reason – this did not apply to my outbound flight. But – hell – were there problems on my way back. Without boring you with the details – my suitcase went on with my camera gear and laptop wrapped in my dirty clothes. And I went on board with an empty camera bag.
My wait at Heathrow (where I had assumed I would be picking up my Mac in pieces) – was the most nerve-wracking of the week. And the longer I waited (2 hours) – the more I could see the baggage staff trying their best to pick up the various parts of my Nikon cameras. But, as my suitcase finally reached me (the last piece of luggage to arrive) – I was amazed to find everything as I had packed it in Beirut airport at 5.00am that morning.
At the end of 2015, I travelled to the Lebanon to spend 3 weeks documenting the work of the American NGO – ANERA. During my visit, I met Oyoun Shabayta. Oyoun is the Field Education Coordinator for ANERA. This brilliant young woman moved me so much, I returned to the camp in April 2016. That gave me the chance to meet her family, who had been refugees in the camp. Her Grandmother since 1948. And heard how the Israelis had driven the family out of their homes. But promised by a British Officer that they would be back in a week.
My plan was to continue telling the story of Oyoun and her family.
So – back to the first point. Before my visit – I started to hear news that there had been clashes in the Palestinian camp of Ein el Helweh. This is where Oyoun lives – and where I had planned to meet her.
The camp is considered the most dangerous in the country. For anyone wanting access to Ein el Helweh – the Lebanese authorities must grant a permit. I know Oyoun had been trying to get this sorted for weeks. But, by the time of my arrival in Lebanon – she had had no luck.
My visit was a short one. And two days before I was due to fly back to London – the authorities had still not granted the elusive permit. However, looking on the bright side – there are worse places in the world than Beirut to be twiddling your thumbs.
But, just as I thought I would be flying back to the UK with my memory cards empty – I got a message from Oyoun saying that ANERA staff and their partners in the camp – would be traveling South for a day out with a group of kids and their families – and I could travel with them. This meant we could avoid the problems getting access to the camp. The UK Government website advises against any travel to the south of the Litani River. Which is where we were headed.
I spent the day with the most wonderful group of people. Watching kids from a madly crowded camp having time to do things kids should be doing. And I was fed some amazing food.
It was during this meal that I sat down with Oyoun – and had a long chat with her. She told me that her Mum would be travelling South the next day to visit the Lebanese and Palestine border. Palestinian refugees can apply to travel to the border on certain dates.
And, the authorities had accepted Oyoun’s Mum’s application. As had her Dad’s Mum’s. The last of their family that lived in Palestine – before they were driven out in 1948.
I asked what they did there. Oyoun told me “They look. They breathe – and they look again – at their land”.
This story has stuck in my mind. Of all the stories I have had with Palestinians – including with people in the camps in Beirut during the 1982 massacres – this story has been lodged in my thoughts. That a group of people who miss their land so much – will travel to a border. As close as they can get – to just look at it. I found that heartbreaking to be honest.
Later this year – I will travel to Palestine (a British photographer can do that). I will visit the site of Oyoun’s family village – to take photographs. Not only as part of my project, but so they can get some pictures of their home. And that will bring the story of the last 68 years or so to a full circle.