Construction and destruction in Shatila and Gaza.
When I visited Shatila last week two topics dominated conversation: the carnage in Gaza and the deleterious effects of the construction boom underway in the camp. I’ll take them in turn, though Shatilans usually don’t; for them, each topic seems the underbelly of the other.
Building in Shatila has long been described by residents as a kind of cancer, its growth both irregular and hazardous. The waves of Syrians and Palestinians fleeing Syria since 2011 have caused it to metastasize. Two years ago its population was estimated at 21,000, around 9000 of them Palestinian. Friends tell me the influx of refugees, alongside the steady flow of Lebanese and labor migrants seeking cheap housing in Beirut, has brought the number closer to 35,000. Shatila’s density rivals that of Gaza City.
The camp has spatially transformed since my last visit in 2012. For the first time I found myself unable to recognize certain streets. The building I lived in has grown by three floors; others have grown by four. The memory of natural light cools near windows now giving out onto cinderblocks. There is a pervasive sense of foreboding; miming the blind, hands outstretched, my former neighbor told me she now prayed for divine guidance when the electricity cut. Services already overextended are collapsing under the strain. Electricity cuts are now constant, the water has turned salty as the camp’s wells run dry (“even the earth is crying!” said one resident) and the overflow of sewage and garbage is now overwhelming. “Our blood is boiling over Gaza, but also over conditions here—we can barely move or breathe,” explained Abu Hasan, who has lived in Shatila for forty years. “We’re dying everywhere.”