Robert Fisk: Syria welcomed them – now it has spat them out

The Palestinians caught in Syria's crossfire have fled. Our writer met them in Bourj el-Barajneh, Beirut

Share

Syria's tragedy began 10 years before she was born. Her parents were driven from their home in Haifa – in that part of Palestine that became Israel – and fled to Lebanon in 1948, then to Syria in 1982. "God bless his soul, our Dad called me Syria and another sister he called Palestine," she says, sitting in the corner of a hovel of oven-like heat in the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. A fan fights the dust-filled 35C air. Syria's sister Palestine lives down the same alleyway. Um Hassan, a third sister, listens with narrowed eyes, nodding in agreement, freeze-framed face for most of the time. Both wear black.

Syria – the country – was a welcome place when Syria the refugee arrived there with her young husband as a refugee from the Lebanese civil war. The early Hafez el-Assad years – how quickly the West and Syria's Arab enemies forget this today – assured homes, equal rights as citizens, employment and free hospital services to the half million Palestinians who lived under the Baathist regime: better conditions than any other Arab nation offered. "The government was 'strict' but treated us the same as Syrians," Syria says. "We were neutral in Syria."

She started her family – she has five boys and two girls, she says – in the refugee camp at Deraa, the southern Syrian city where the revolution started nearly 18 months ago, when government agents tortured an 11-year-old Syrian boy to death for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall.

"After 1982, they were beautiful years and we had a very nice life," she says. "We were treated well and with dignity – and my children, they feel they belong to Syria, not to Lebanon where their parents came from. My sons married Syrian women." She has not yet spoken of her tragedy.

Um Hassan agrees. She is 48, the youngest of the sisters, now the mother of five sons and five daughters. She settled in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar which came under siege by the Christian Tiger militia of Dany Chamoun in 1975.

"My two brothers died in the massacre there the following year," she says. "Their names were Nimr and Korfazeh." She speaks without emotion. Nimr, ironically, means "tiger" in Arabic. A tiger killed by a tiger. She and her family moved to Deraa in 1981; her memories are the same as Syria's. "A secure life; as a Palestinian, everything was available to us, any job opportunity, hospitals were free…" Her smile does not last long.

"Things started to go wrong 18 months ago. We were treated well, but the shooting started in Deraa and we sympathised with the Syrian people. We tried to bring them medical supplies and to help the wounded. Then the armed rebels came to our camp last month and the word went round that the Syrians wanted us Palestinians to leave our homes.

"Some left, some stayed. Then helicopters came and started to bombard the houses. I ran away with my family, so quickly I even left the key in the house and the door unlocked. When I returned briefly, I found the house destroyed and all our furniture and property looted – stolen by the rebels, by the regime, even by our own neighbours."

Syria has sat through Um Hassan's account in silence. "The government thought some Palestinians were with the protesters and some were arrested. They took one of my sons to the prison and tortured him for two or three weeks. Then he died from the torture." There is silence in the room.

So she has four sons out of the five she originally mentioned, I say quietly. "No, I already took him from the total number," she says. "I have five sons living. I had six sons." Her surviving children are now living in a school and a mosque in a village outside Deraa. They all have Lebanese identity papers. She came to Beirut to find the documents and take them back to Syria so her sons and daughters can enter Lebanon.

The Palestinians of Syria have been treated well by Lebanon's border officials, allowed to enter the country after recording their names and ages. Ahmed Mustafa, who collates details of all the Palestinian refugees arriving in Beirut from Syria, says that there are 80 families registered in Bourj el-Barajneh, 70 in the Sabra and Shatila camps – scene of the 1982 massacre by Israel's Christian militia allies – and 10 in the tiny Mar Elias camp. Three hundred more Palestinian families from Syria have settled in the huge camp at Ein el-Helweh outside Sidon, another 60 in Rashidieh, scarcely 17 miles from the Israeli border.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, says that his country will accept no refugees from Syria. The Palestinians of Syria – there are more than half a million of them – believe that Mr Barak's comment was directed at them. The homeland of the Palestinians will remain forbidden territory.

Um Khaled arrived from Deraa this week but her tragedy began, of course, 23 years before she was born when her grandfather, a camel-dealer, fled with his family – including her eight-year old father – from the suburb of Tir al-Haifa in what is now Israel's largest northern city: first to Jordan and then to Egypt, where her grandmother's family lived. When she died, the family moved to the Damascus suburb of Doumar and then into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. Um Khaled was 17. She now has 10 children – her husband set off for Europe four years ago to find a job. She fled Damascus just four days ago and her story is as instructive as it is tragic.

"I suppose we were sympathetic to the protesters in the streets and we were probably upset that unarmed people were being killed. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command were with the regime, but some of their officers were not. Even some of the Palestine Liberation Army (part of the Syrian armed forces) are not with the regime. Violence began in Yarmouk two weeks ago. PLA men came to protect the camp. Shells landed on the camp – we don't know who fired them.

"Then Syrian helicopters flew over us and dropped leaflets. They showed a picture of a boy smiling, and the caption said: 'If you want to keep your son smiling, evacuate the area'."

Irony again. In 1982, the Israeli air force dropped almost identical leaflets over civilian areas of besieged Beirut which said: "If you value the lives of your loved ones, leave West Beirut." Did the Syrian authorities learn from the Israelis?

"Syrian tanks then came to Arouba Street and started firing. A neighbour of mine, Maafeq Sayed, was in the Araba area and was hit in the neck by a sniper and died. His mother said the government television claimed he was a terrorist. The government hospital registered him as the victim of a heart attack. The 'GC' Palestinians did not shoot back.

"Then came rumours that the Alawi in the Syrian army were going to massacre us. Some women were slaughtered in the Asali area next to the Yarmouk camp. Palestinians came to rescue people trapped in their homes. Then there were more rumours that people had come with knives to slaughter the Alawis."

On Friday of last week, shells fell across Yarmouk, killing 20 and wounding 54 Palestinians, 18 of whom lost limbs. There were women and children among the victims. Um Khaled sold her family furniture and set off to friends in Beirut, praying that her husband – now an unemployed refugee in the Swedish city of Malmo – might be able to help her. She still insists that life was good before the conflict in Syria. "We had dignity," she says. "But this is our tragedy."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform