The following is an extract from Shatila Stories, a commissioned novel written by nine Syrian and Palestinian refugees, published by Peirene Press and edited by Suhir Helal. You can buy the book here. 50p from the sale of all Peirene books, and all the profits from Shatila Stories, will go to Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an NGO which supports refugees in nine camps throughout Lebanon and Turkey.
Chaos everywhere. Thundering sounds rip through my ears. I blink and blink again. I take snapshots with my eyes. Racing feet, dragging feet; old people, young people; cars of different colours, of different shapes; grey sky, swaying trees. Hundreds, thousands are waiting at the closed gate, paperwork in hand, hoping to pass through. They want to cross the border. A scene worthy of the Day of Reckoning. Worry and fear are paramount. A pallor has settled across everyone’s face, no matter how dark or fair their complexion. Desperate eyes.
I bid farewell to the country that I have lived in since my very first day. We are leaving for a safer place. We are on our way from Damascus to Beirut.
The confusion around me helps to dispel anxious thoughts about the future. I distract myself by contemplating my reflection in the car window. The mirror image shows a young woman with large, tired eyes. She wears a brown scarf and a brown coat. My gaze travels down to her feet. The red winter boots look out of place considering the circumstances.
And so our journey begins. First to the Hermel border region, an agricultural area surrounded by mountains, with the River Asi running through it.
Afterwards all I will remember is the small white car we leave in and how we have to squeeze in on the back seat, sitting on our hands because there is no room for our arms. I’m next to my younger brother, Adam. Next to Adam sit our parents. Marwan, my husband, is in the passenger seat beside the driver, who tries to deal with his fear by cracking jokes that no one pays any attention to. He has a black beard, wears glasses and uses a white rag to wipe the windscreen, which is fogging up from our breath. Eventually I can free my hands and I drape Marwan’s black jacket around me, hoping it will form a barrier between my ears and the pounding of my heart.
Scenes of shooting and shouting and panic and fear and blood flicker through my mind, like watching an old television set connected to a faulty aerial. Yet I manage to fall asleep and as I drift off I suddenly feel pleased that I’m able to do just that – close my eyes and succumb to oblivion. But soon I’m stirred again by the sound of a frightened dog. Every now and then, I hear the melodic call of a cricket trying to attract a mate. Then once more the night wraps me up in a black blanket.
"Thanks be to Allah for your safety."
The driver’s voice reaches me from far away, followed by my mother’s gentle nudge: "Reham, we are here."
I get out of the car and walk towards the black door. Carefully, I slide my feet across the muddy ground. An old peasant woman greets us, laughter lines etched on her wrinkled face as she welcomes us into her home. We climb marble steps lit by the yellow glow of a lantern that brightens and dims as we move.
After only a few hours’ sleep we are on the road again, long before sunrise. Our destination is the Shatila camp in Beirut, our new home.
We hope that Shatila will be our refuge. Because we believe blood is thicker than water. We know we will be living among fellow Palestinian refugees. And we are convinced that we won’t feel like strangers.
I know very little about Shatila, only that it’s a camp that was established in 1949 in the south of Beirut on agricultural land to house Palestinian refugees. In 1982 the area entered history as the site of the horrific massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps.
We approach a café where Marwan tells us we will meet his contact.
A young man, almost a boy still, about Adam’s age, is scrubbing red paint off his fingers under a tap. As he’s drying his hands he introduces himself as Muneef. He offers us coffee, which we gratefully accept. As we sip it, I notice from the corner of my eye how he takes a gun from a small shelf underneath the sink and slides it into the back of his trousers. For a second my heart stops. In a panic I glance at the others. Didn’t we come here in order to escape from guns and violence and war? But no one except me seems to have noticed and Muneef appears friendly.
As we leave the café he tells us we’d be better off carrying our bags on our backs. At first I don’t understand what he means, but with his next instruction it begins to make sense.
"Stomp your feet as you walk. It’ll frighten the rats." Marwan has never mentioned rats!
Muneef has plenty of advice, behaving just like a good guide for tourists.
We march through dim, muddy alleyways where hardly any light penetrates even though the sky above us is now brightening. Tangled electrical cables run everywhere above our heads and wrap themselves around water pipes, climbing up the precariously assembled buildings that look like giant matchboxes stacked on top of each other. I gasp at the sight of an exposed copper wire at the end of a sagging cable. Is it live? What if one of our heads skims it as we walk past? Suddenly I struggle to breathe. As if there’s no oxygen left in these alleyways.
Three big fat rats cut across the path right in front of my feet, scurrying from one side alley to another, where they leap onto a towering rubbish heap. A thick, dark cloud of flies hovers above it. I shriek. Marwan throws me an angry glance, before looking at my parents with concern. Thankfully they are staring down, trying hard not to slip in this mud. We walk on. I see posters of former camp residents who were killed in the 1982 massacre. And there are many walls covered in graffiti. My eyes fall on a map of Palestine and slogans speaking of a heartfelt desire to return to the homeland. And then there are the flags, all relating to various political factions, including the green Hamas flags, the yellow Fatah ones and the black flags of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It dawns on me that the camp must be divided by allegiance to different factions.
Our group comes to a halt. Muneef has stopped in front of a huge, freshly painted slogan: Don’t talk about the camp unless you know it.
"I painted it this morning." He grins proudly. "I’m fed up with people judging us when they don’t even know the camp."
We all nod. But I don’t know what he’s talking about. And I’m sure neither do my parents or Adam. Yet we don’t dare to ask. Instead I see Adam throw a fearful glance at Muneef’s gun in the back of his trousers.
Questions begin circling in my mind as we penetrate ever deeper into this maze of muddy alleys and low-hanging electrical cables. For a moment I turn my face upwards and catch a glimpse of the sky. I observe a flock of pigeons escaping.
Suddenly I am overwhelmed by a feeling that we are now like seeds buried deep in the dark earth. We have arrived in a prison, which we have entered of our own free will, or so it appears. Sentenced without any charge.