I first travelled to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el Helweh in southern Lebanon shortly before the Israeli invasion of the country in 2006. Since then, I have been back a number of times and returned again in 2016.
Ein el Helweh was established in 1948 by the International Committee of the Red Cross to house Palestinian refugee’s fleeing Northern Palestine. It is based south of the port of Sidon, close to the Mediterranean Sea. In the early 1950s, the canvas tents that once housed the refugees were replaced with concrete shelters – making the camp a more permanent home. To some extent, Ein el Helweh epitomises how quickly and how slowly things can move in the Middle East. In the last four years, the population of Ein el Helweh has swollen to 120,000 because of the number of Syrian refugees entering the camp. However, the majority of the population is Palestinian. The eldest of these have been there for 68 years.
Under the 1969 Cairo Accords, the PLO was granted exclusive responsibility for administering the refugee camps in Lebanon. Although this is not strictly the case now, it does mean that an agreement still exists that the Lebanese army do not enter Ein el Helweh. This in turn has led to the camp having a ‘zone of unlaw’ according to the Lebanese media. As a result, a number of Islamist groups have managed to enter the camp in recent years. This has resulted in frequent clashes with the Palestinians. Shortly before my arrival in Lebanon in April 2016, matters came to a head when gun battles took place between the two groups. This culminated in the assassination of the Fatah leader Gen Fathi Zeidan just outside the camp the day before I arrived.
There are four checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army. Access to the camp can be difficult at the most peaceful of times. With the recent unrest in the camp and the assassination just outside of it, security was at a heightened state. Because camera equipment is not allowed into the camp, my kit was hidden around the jeep I was travelling in. This didn’t cause any real problems – although the army were curious to know why I was carrying a camera flashgun in my bag (I had forgotten to hide it). I was allowed in – with just the words that I was “very brave” to be going in.
The purpose of my visit was to work on a photo documentary with Oyoun Shabayta, who I met in the camp at the end of 2015. Oyoun is the Field Education Coordinator for the American NGO, ANERA. She is 24 and has lived in the camp her entire life – as have her parents – and since 1948 – her grand-parents. I was so moved by the work I saw her doing with a young Syrian boy – traumatised by the death of his parents in Syria – I decided to return to find out more about her and her family. I met Oyoun and her friend Said at the ANERA office in the camp, where we had coffee. The two of them had grown up together in Ein el Helweh – and their families had both left the village of Hittin in Northern Palestine in 1948.
Oyoun received her education in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools in the camp. She wanted to study media and communications to become a reporter. However, she was unable to, because of the restrictions imposed on Palestinians in certain areas of work. She eventually enrolled on an applied business computer course at the national university in Lebanon. However, after three years, unable to get any work in the corporate sector, she moved into the humanitarian sector. She initially worked with the NGO, Action Against Hunger, then moved to ANERA.
During my visit, we talked about a broad range of subjects. Football (she is a Juventus fan); her dreams and ambitions; and the one subject that unites all Palestinians – the ‘right to return’. She showed me a painting by one of her pupils – with a ‘key’ central to the artwork. The key represents the ‘right to return’. It symbolises a common goal for all Palestinians. When I was in Ramallah a few years ago, I was shown a key by a young man that had been given to him by his grandfather. It was the key to his family home that he had not seen since 1948.
In 1948, the first formal move towards the recognition of a right of return was passed by the UN. It stated “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”.
Oyoun was kind enough to invite me to her family home. Here, I met her brother and wife and their little daughter, her parents and her paternal grandmother Mahmouda Mohammad Shabahta. Her Grandmother was born and raised in the Northern Palestinian town of Hittin. In 1948, there were rumours that the Israeli army was moving from village to village forcing – at gunpoint – all Palestinian civilians to leave their homeland. In May 1948, when she was eight years old, heavily armed Israeli soldiers reached Hittin. The entire village was forced to leave – and her parents were left with the words of a British officer telling them they would be free to return to their house in a week.
They headed North and, after a walk of many days, reached the port of Sidon in Lebanon. They, along with the other refugees, were housed in a church there. After a short time – the family made their way to Tripoli in the North of the country. They stayed there until 1951 when they returned to the newly developed camp of Ein el Helweh. She has been there ever since.
She has returned to Hittin three times since – her last trip being in 1995. Travel for all Palestinians to their homeland has since became more and more restrictive – and since the second Intifada in 2000, all travel has been stopped. Oyoun and her generation have never been allowed to visit Palestine. Any attempt to cross the border by Palestinians is met with force. When a number of Oyoun’s friends last tried – they were fired upon by the Israeli Defence Force. This led to a number of injuries – including her friend Said – who was shot in both legs.
Before I left, Oyuoun’s Grandmother showed me some pebbles from the lake at Hittin that she collected on her last and final visit. She, like her children and grandchildren, simply wants to return to the place they call their home and hang onto any memento’s they can. I was also taken to a meeting centre set up for all those in the camp who can trace their roots back to the village of Hittin. There is one like it for each village in Northern Palestine. I was shown some fascinating photographs of how the village looked before 1948. The final shot I took was of an elderly – very dignified Palestinian – sitting in front of a picture of Hittin taken in 1934. He, like Mahmouda Mohammad Shabahta, was forced to leave the village in 1948 – and has been as refugee in Lebanon ever since.