According to Badil Resource Center for Refugee Rights, there are approximately 4.8 million UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees (*Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons – Volume VII – 2010-2012). Nearly 1.9 million of these refugees live within the 1967 occupied lands including more than 738,000 within refugee camps in these areas. Others live in cities and camps in the surrounding Arab countries, and also in the global diaspora. A further 2.6 million displaced Palestinians are not registered in the UNRWA figures, making a total displaced population of approximately 7.4 million people. Statistics are necessary for understanding the scale of displacement that the Zionist settler-colonial program has enforced, but to understand displacement on a deeper level is to look at it in more personal, human terms.
Every Palestinian refugee has stories to tell. These stories will vary in detail but are inherently linked through the political process that has forced them upon people and in to their lives. This over-riding matrix of human control has shaped the lives of Palestinians for decades. May 15th will be marked as the 66th year since the Nakba began, although in practice the forced depopulation of Palestinian villages began en-masse in 1947 rather than 1948.
Ahmad Sawilma has many stories to tell from his 33 years of life. He is one of 24,000 refugees living in Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Zionist policies have deeply affected his life, as has his life in exile which the associated regime imposed upon him:
‘I was born here in Balata. As a child I used to ask myself why we had to live this life, why did the Israeli army kill my brother? How can I get my land back, how can I have a life? As I got older I began to ask how we could get rid of the occupation? I want all people to live in freedom and peace, but I want people to know that we, Palestinians, are people too.’
During the First Intifada, Sawilma was just a young child but he witnessed the brutality of the occupation and remembers questioning how the occupation forces could kill people so easily, and how any human being could willingly shoot children. When the Second Intifada broke out he became active in localised resistance, ‘My resistance was inside the camp. I didn’t go to Israeli areas but I defended the camp and my people when the occupation attacked us.’
In 2003, Sawilma was shot twice by the IOF and arrested. He was left to bleed for 2 hours before receiving any medical treatment. He was eventually operated on in an Israeli hospital. When he regained consciousness, Sawilma recalls the doctor telling him that the operation had gone wrong and they would re-operate ‘without a syringe’; the second operation was carried out entirely without anesthetics.
On arrival at prison Ahmad was asked where he was from.
‘I told them I was from Jaffa. They said, ‘From where?’. I told them, ‘Jaffa’. They said, ‘You are from Balata camp’. I told them, ‘I am from Jaffa, my home is Jaffa.”
Ahmad’s father and brothers were refused permission to visit him in prison but his mother visited him several times. These visits were carried out with plates of reinforced glass separating them.
‘She told me that when she died she must be buried under her Eucalyptus trees in Jaffa.’
Two months before Ahmad was finally released from prison, after serving 10 years, his mother died. She was buried in Balata camp.
*This photo-essay features portraits of Palestinian refugee’s in Balata refugee camp, Nablus, describing what it means to them ‘To Be a Refugee…’.
**Sincere thanks to all at Yafa Cultural Center, Balata refugee camp.
MEMO Photographer: Rich Wiles