Monthly Archives: April 2012

Playing Soldiers

Yesterday I went to watch a demonstration in the camp. It was the anniversary of the foundation of the Arab Liberation Front (a Ba’athist-associated minor faction within the PLO) and another significant date associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (another political faction – this time closely associated with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah – with a particularly dark past that has included attacks on school children), and so two parades had been organised through the streets and alleyways of Beddawi Camp.

The residents are, understandably, very cautious of foreigners taking photos, especially when they are kitted up with guns and demonstrating. Luckily, I went with a colleague who wanted to borrow my camera to take some photos for a website. Some of the shots are quite remarkable, and the things that I saw yesterday have been playing through my mind ever since. Among the standard armed militiamen in fatigues and carrying Kalashnikovs, and the local Sheikhs and members of the Popular Committees (all old men – the de facto political leadership in the camps), were a startling number of children.

Some of these kids were members of the Palestinian Scout Association. They looked smart, in neat uniforms, playing drums and bagpipes, waving flags, and with obvious pride at being in the parade. Others were in replica military uniforms, some as young as 6-7, either holding replica weapons or real guns. There’s something really quite overwhelming about seeing a young boy carrying an assault rifle, struggling under the weight of it while he marches along with his father. One can’t call them child soldiers as this was just a march and not a battle. But it makes me wonder where, in the event of a conflict, would the community draw the age line? When I asked a colleague about this he said simply that, if these Palestinians are attacked, everyone in the community would be involved in fighting back.

The photoset from the parades leaves me in a real quandary. Firstly, I wasn’t the one behind the lens so they strictly speaking aren’t my photos to share. What is more, they contain faces of people who would not want me to share them, and the faces of children who deserve protection and anonymity. Nevertheless, I desperately want to show people what I saw, and for them to be shocked as I was. I’ll not publish the photos (except the one above as it contains no faces), but I will describe one of them.

The highlight of the set was a picture of a young boy, no older than 9-10, at the front of one of the parades. He was wearing military fatigues, a beret, and had a floral wreath around his neck to be laid at a monument in the centre of the camp. His face was ruddy-cheeked, open, and with truly startling eyes – one bright, icy blue, one dark brown. I’ve been trying not to get carried away in florid metaphor, but in this case it’s possibly forgivable. Everything about the child, about the community, seemed to be contained in those heterochromatic eyes. One eye held the brightness of hope, innocence, pride, and the possibility of a better tomorrow that is embodied by children. The other seemed to contain the darkness of violence, fear, anger and despair that has been this community’s past, and may still yet be their future.

(I’ve just been told that the ribbon on the wreath around the boy’s neck bears the name of the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command’. Given their history of targeting children, that’s pretty chilling too.)

For me, the most troubling aspect of seeing armed children is not just the immorality of placing children at risk, but the fact that it saps away all hope for a better future for a community. If children are made to feel proud to be armed, and if this is the only way they are taught to resist or seek change, then it closes down the possibility that they will find their own, peaceful way to pursue the justice and freedoms they will want in their lives.

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Photos: From two trips to Nahr el Bared Camp

This group were taken from two trips to NBC (and apologies for the poor quality of the ones taken from the car – these were taken on ‘that’ car journey…). I’ve had more of a chance to get an understanding of the area and the scale of the destruction recently – the camp really was flattened in the 2007 conflict, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single older building without damage. The camp is situated right on the Mediterranean, and the waterfront apparently used to contain park areas and cafes for people. Now that entire area is refuse and rubble. I guess the rebuilding of leisure areas is pretty far down on the priorities list.

One thing I’m going to try and get more photos of is the murals. The number of these is astounding, if not surprising. Every street seems to have a painting with any number of significant symbols: doves, walls, keys, keffiyeh scarves, blood, fists, guns, chains… And the quality of the painting is often amazing.

In my last trip I sat in on a meeting between UNRWA funders from different organisations and embassies touring the camp, and members of the community and local Popular Committee (the authority within the camp). It was a bit of a strange affair – rushed, and with everything going through a translator. There was a bit of an audience (funders) and performer (community members) dynamic, and very limited actual conversation between the two. Not a great empathy-building exercise (it was more an airing of grievances and a plea for vitally-needed assistance) but at least the two groups do meet.

The rest of the photos can be seen on my Flickr account, here.

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Photos: Mawlid 2012, Jabal Beddawi

Mawlid 2012 1 by rohantalbot
Mawlid 2012 1, a photo by rohantalbot on Flickr.

Quick post today, I’m going to start uploading some of the photos from my Flickr feed to here rather than spamming Facebook with all of them.

This batch were taken from the balcony of my office/home in Jabal Beddawi during Mawlid (Prophet Mohammed’s birthday) celebrations back in February. As you can see, there were a number of sheep butchered in the road for the occasion, along with music from some really huge speakers (sadly didn’t manage to get a photo!), and food being handed out to passers by. Note the Free Syria flag there too – these are dotted liberally around the area by opposition groups, as are photos of Assad himself put up by his supporters. I’ll hopefully get around to posting something about the fighting between the pro/anti Assad supporters that happened here in February soon.

Click through for the rest of the photos in this set.