Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Palestinian Refugee Camp You Haven't Heard Of

"Palestinians dumped by road in no man's land, their plight ignored by all

Palestinian refugees from Iraq at Al Tanf camp between the Iraqi and Syrian border

The Syrian authorities stopped the UN from improving life in the camp where 900 Palestinians live. Families stay in tents by the roadside and have to endure sandstorms, floods and fire. Two children were killed by lorries

Arab solidarity is not a phrase that Salim Ahmad wants to hear any more. On a battered television inside a windblown tent he watches with scepticism as the crowds demonstrate in the streets of Damascus over Israel's war in Gaza.

“If they really cared anything for Palestinians, they would not leave us here in this terrible place,” he said, gesturing around him. “Don't tell me about solidarity when nobody cares that we are here at all.”

For the past three years this desolate spot between the Iraqi and Syrian border posts has served as home to hundreds of Palestinians fleeing persecution in Iraq. Favoured by Saddam Hussein as proof of his solidarity with the Palestinian cause, they were among the first targets of vengeful Shia militia after the fall of the regime.

When they tried to flee to Syria, however, they found their paths blocked. While Iraq citizens swanned through the border post Palestinians were turned back, unable to enter Syria but unable to return to Iraq either. Stateless and without passports the Palestinians sat down where they were dumped, in the walled-off layby by the road between the two glowering border posts.

The al-Tanf camp is the invisible face not only of the Iraqi refugee crisis but also of the miserable history of perpetual refugeehood that is the Palestinian plight. The Syrian Government has kept it hidden, embarrassed by what it shows, but yesterday The Times became one of only two news organisations to see al-Tanf for themselves.

“This is a prison, get us out of here,” were the first words of Adnan Abdullah. His family were driven from their house in Baghdad by a Shia landlord after the fall of Saddam and they moved to an impromptu camp in a football field in the city. The camp was attacked and closed in 2005.

Other Palestinians who tried to flee to Jordan had been held at another camp on the border there, so Mr Abdullah decided that he would try to stay in Baghdad with other family members despite the threats to leave. In June of that year militiamen from the Badr Brigade came for him in the middle of the night. They took him to a secret detention centre where they hung him from his wrists and goaded him to confess to planting bombs.

“They shouted screw Palestine, screw Jerusalem,” Mr Abdullah said. “They said, ‘We want to empty Iraq of Palestinians'.”

They were on the way to succeeding. When Mr Abdullah was released by a court after a year of prison and torture the family sold everything they owned to pay for fake Iraqi passports that would get them into Syria. Unlike some others they got through the border to Damascus where they found others from their community. Living illegally, unable to work and with their money exhausted, however, they became increasingly afraid that they would be caught.

Syrian intelligence officials were carrying out regular sweeps of Iraqi refugee areas in Damascus and many Palestinians had been caught and locked up or deported to al-Tanf. At least at al-Tanf there would be assistance, Mr Abdullah calculated, and possibly a way out.

What they found there, however, was a shock. The Syrian authorities forbid the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from providing any help that might make the camp more permanent, so the refugees live in tents by the side of the road where lorries thunder by. In December 2007 it snowed; last summer a sandstorm ripped several tents from their pitches; floods in December wrecked food stores and shelters. Two children have been killed by lorries and a pregnant woman died when her tent caught fire and burnt down in 12 seconds.

Resettling the refugees was not an option then. “Resettlement is a dirty word when it comes to the Palestinians,” Laurens Jolles, the head of the UN refugee mission in Damascus, said. The Palestinian Authority and the governments of Arab states oppose resettlement on grounds of political principle, an abrogation of the right to return to Palestine and an abandonment of hopes of a Palestinian state. “We don't agree with that,” Mr Jolles said.

Neither do the refugees. “We don't have a nationality, a passport, a home,” Mr Ahmad said. “We want to be settled. Who are they to tell us what is good for Palestinians? No Arab country wants us so if a European one does then I will go there. It is about our children's future.”

The Palestinian Authority and Syrian Government have caved in to the pressure and agreed to allow a number of refugees to be resettled. Chile has taken 113, 181 went to Sweden and 13 to Switzerland. Britain has taken 30 Palestinian refugees from Iraq but none from al-Tanf.

From the original camp of 350 people who could not get across the border the camp has swelled to 900, despite the resettlements. Palestinians arrived after being deported or arrested in Syria or they came voluntarily, exhausted by their fugitive life.

Much of the pressure for resettlement came from the refugees. A group of young men banded together to start a media unit gathering footage of camp life, the floods, fires and snow, which they took to Damascus and aired on the al-Jazeera network.

“We wanted to end our isolation from the world,” Yunis, one of them said. Another member of the group contacted news organisations when the Gaza protests began, telling them: “The Government are hypocrites. We are Palestinians and they don't care about us at all.”

At 93, Hazana is the oldest member of the camp. She was driven out of Haifa in 1948 and has contact with only 2 of her 11 children. Another has been killed and the others she does not know about. “She will never leave here. The only place she's going from here is heaven,” her daughter-in-law, Zainab, confided as Hazana recounts her story, the story of Palestine, a long tale of exile and betrayal.

“We are scattered sheep without a shepherd,” she murmured, her eyes filling with tears. “I never thought I would be here. I thought the kings and princes of Arabia would take us back home. But it turned out to be a false promise.”