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

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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."

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