Nov. 10, 2010 —  I'd thought we'd already seen the worst of Shatila — that is, until we walked toward one of its entrances to take some photos. There, rotting in the sun, sat a festering garbage dump — just a few dozen metres from tenements housing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.

We're told there are six garbagemen in Shatila, employed by the United Nations to gather the refuse of some 12,000 residents. But it's not nearly enough. And nothing, it seems, could erase this unsightly garbage dump, except perhaps for one large bonfire.


A garbage dump near one of the entrances to Shatila. The dump sits just a few dozen metres from the homes of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. ((Nahlah Ayed) )

Look anywhere, in any corner of Shatila, and there's evidence of a daunting problem waiting to be solved. There is the large water tank built at great expense to draw water from a well that's been sitting empty for months because, it turns out, the water below is unfit for human consumption.

There are heaps of rubble and debris and concrete blocks in many of the alleys and roads. It all just sits there, waiting to be picked up.

The residents themselves could solve some of these problems — and sometimes, when the will has been there, problems have been solved. But there are many other conundrums that are beyond the reach of even the most willing. Today, over the course of less than an hour, we got a sampling of some of them.

It was an intensely hot day. We were cooling off in the shade with some tea, waiting for our next appointment, when a man approached us and timidly started talking.

"You should look into the story of Palestinians here who have no identification papers," he said.

I had glimpsed the wiry man with the dark pupils and long eyelashes at the camp's children's centre a few days ago. From morning till night, he also mans what is known as the "express," a tiny Lebanese-style refreshment stall that peddles coffee and tea near the only open space in Shatila. It was his tea we were drinking.


This large water tank was supposed to service the entire camp using well water but still sits empty, because the water that was to fill it was found to be unfit for human consumption. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Most Palestinians in Shatila have no passports or papers to prove a nationality, but they at least have official identification that allows them, for example, to arrange travel or register at a university. The people the man was talking about have no such identification, and no one will issue it.

"Are you one of those people?" I asked him. He nodded, and began to tell his story.

He was a refugee displaced by the Six Day War of 1967 and wasn't recognized by the Lebanese authorities because he had travelled through several countries that didn't issue IDs to those who had Israeli identification documents.

He complained passionately about the impossibility of travel, the difficulty of accessing just about any available services without official ID.

Within minutes, two friends of his joined the conversation.

"There are no services here for the disabled," said one, who was nearly toothless and had a white stubble. He said he had a disabled son at home.

"Sometimes, they start up something to help them. They gather money and do a few things. Then, they disappear."

The conversation ebbed and flowed, seamlessly flowing into predicaments as diverse as the camp's divided political leadership and the rising cost of living.


Car carcasses like this one are a common in Shatila, taking up precious space. The camp has only six garbagemen to collect the waste of 12,000 residents, but garbage is just one of the many problems residents face - from drug use to a lack of opportunities for youth. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Back to the wiry man. He had now moved on to how common, and sometimes public, drug use is in the camp — and what that might one day do to his children.

"Let's say they [drug users] have a problem, and they can't help it, can't they do it indoors?" he said.

The men, now more animated, next complained about the lack of opportunities for their children, bemoaning the wasted efforts of many Shatila youth who pursue higher education only to find themselves unemployed or underemployed upon graduation.

One of the men went to fetch an example of such a person. Mojahed Abbas (whose father runs the children's centre and whom we met a few days ago) appeared.

It took Abbas six long years to earn a degree in marine engineering. He returned to Lebanon, but because of its restrictions on Palestinian employment in dozens of professions, he's never actually worked here in his field.

"There are doctors who walk around and beg here for money," said the near-toothless man.

It was a sobering conversation. The garbage dump no longer appears so daunting.