Aida Refugee Camp is located between Betlehem and Beit Jala and was established in 1950. It consists of approximately 5,000 Palestinian refugees from 35 different villages in Jerusalem and Hebron. Today, I had the chance of visiting it for the first time.
BY MASIH SADAT
“Ayda” means something close to “returning visitor” in Arabic, which symbolises perfectly the spirit of this refugee camp. The camp is filled with refugees from 1948, all strongly determined to return back to where they once lived. Everywhere in the refugee camp there’s graffiti on the walls, confirming this believe. All of them are about the “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”, referring to the consequences of the 1948 events for the Palestinians) and their firm believe that one day they will return.
The giant key in the picture below is also a symbol for this, and is something that I noticed has a very strong symbolic meaning for all of the refugees. I was told that every family here in the camp had hold on to their original keys from their homes that they were driven away from, as a symbol of returning back one day.
Before I entered the camp I was not sure what to expect. The image I had in my head didn’t quite add up with the reality I later came to see. I expected to enter a large, overcrowded, stressed area full of hopelessness. My thought of the camp being overcrowded was to be true indeed, but instead of sorrow and hopelessness, I saw a little ‘city’ filled with hope, patience, and bravery.
I’ve seen this kind of spirit among many other Palestinians in the occupied territories, but there was something very different about this place. It was on a whole other level that I hadn’t yet seen before.
While walking along the streets in the camp I suddenly came across a really bad, nauseous smell forcing every bypassing to close their mouth and nose. At first I thought the bad smell came from some nearby trash zone but was later told by our ‘guide’ the real reason, which was even more nauseous. Apparently, during demonstrations and protests in the camp, Israeli forces spray stinking chemicals at the protesters, something the locals named “Stinky Water”. This extreme, disgusting smell will last for about 20 days if it gets on you, and it’s so bad, that in the first days after getting sprayed you are forced to stay indoors. “If you try to wash it off, it will get even worse”, one of the Palestinians, who himself hadn’t been able to get rid of the smell for five whole months, tells us. Protests take place frequently in Aida Camp, so these stinking chemicals are something the Palestinians live with almost constantly.
Later during the day we went over to one the UN children schools, which had blocked its windows due to a shooting episode in 2004, one of the locals told us. While standing outside the building, we suddenly see a small group of young Palestinian boys marching down the street with their heads high, their tank tops and t-shirts wrapped around their heads, a stone in each hand, and a smile on the lip. With their peace signs in the air, they’re posing for those of us taking pictures. A couple of them are standing with distance and we are told that it’s due to fear of getting in trouble with the Israeli soldiers for what they were about to do.
They boys head on and we walk up to the roof of a building where we have a full overiew of the camp. We see the group of boys from a distance and they’re headed to the separation wall to throw stones at the watch towers where the soldiers are controlling. This is something that takes place daily we are told – that they boys would gather in a group and march to the wall to “fight the occupation”.
While standing on the roof of the building we suddenly hear shots being fired from a distance. We quickly run down to the street again and saw one of the boys walking towards us with something in his hand. He comes closer and I notice what’s in his hand – a rubber-coated bullet that the soldiers had shot at them. Many Palestinians I’ve spoken to in the West Bank don’t like the term “rubber bullet”, as many call it, as they feel it’s a euphemism, and instead prefer calling them “iron bullets”, referring to the piece of metal inside of the bullet.
The boy was holding the bullet as though it was a souvenir, a prize he had won for defying the soldiers at the wall. He seemed a bit shocked but still had a very clear look filled with pride and satisfaction.
We start heading down to the wall and the watch tower where the group of boys are still continuing throwing stones. We walk pass a graveyard placed right next to the wall and see a funeral is taking place. Suddenly, I feel a bad sting in my eyes and I’m forced to hold back. It gets worse and then it hits me that it’s from tear gas being thrown towards us.
A large group of men start running out of the graveyard while covering their mouths and eyes. The tear gas is the soldiers’ response to stone throwing by the young boys. But it only works for a short moment, cause soon after the group of boys are back again with stones in their hands, peace signs, laughter, and swear words in Arabic for the soldiers.
Be it stinky water, rubber-coated bullets, or tear gas – it doesn’t seem like anything can stop these fearless, young boys.
UNRWA: Aida camp covers a small area of 0.71 square kilometres that has not grown significantly with the refugee population. As such, it faces severe overcrowding problems. Poor personal safety and access (due to the camp’s proximity to the West Bank Barrier) and poor infrastructure are also cited by camp residents as among the most urgent challenges they face.