You can’t breathe in here. The air is thick with moving bodies, as limbs jostle for space in the heat, and a fleshy traffic jam of sweating faces clots both entrances to the central street. Life is suffocating in the Balata Refugee Camp.
Twenty-five thousand people are crammed inside just one square kilometre, making Balata the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, but the smallest in area. The camp has a dislocated sense of the temporary locked into permanence. The structures feel strangely awkward, restlessly elbowing each other for room; they are clumsy, grey-bricked giants balancing precariously on the feet of what was only ever intended as a provisional tent village. Balata is the site where temporary tents for refugees in the 1950s unwillingly took root, gradually mutating into a sprawling urban community. These breeze block monsters seem to hover uncertainly, as ready to swell in cemented proportion as to fall into a heap of rubble; as if they were built for today, but know that they must last for tomorrow, and the day after. Here new builds shoulder the bullet-hole-pocked skeletons of destroyed family homes. Opposite the Yafa Volunteers’ Centre, a woman is draping a long rope of white plastic flowers out of a second storey window. She smiles at me watching, beckons, and motions for my Palestinian friend to translate: “She thinks this looks funny! Tell her that this is not my home, this will never be home. But right now, it has to be. So I put out the flowers, I smile, and I pretend the sun is shining”. In fact, most of the sunlight in the camp is pretend. Rays do not reach the ground in much of Balata’s dingy labyrinth, meaning residents often have to burn electric lights around the clock. As Balata’s population increases, the buildings grow higher and higher, blocking out more and more sunlight. Several generations live together in a few rooms, haphazardly stacked on top of one another, where many of the connecting allies are so narrow that you have to turn sideways to walk down them.
Up in the hill-top town of Sebastia, the wild flowers are in bloom. Goats wade through the frothy gorges of yellow that submerge remains of a Roman amphitheatre. I eat a paper-bag of fresh green almonds, furry pod giving way to sour pearly flesh, and look out upon the folding valley patched with olive groves. The mountain air is a world away from the breathlessness of Balata. Figs swell, larks sing, olives ripen, but down below in the camp, no grass grows. Ahmed Walwil, a resident and a volunteer, talks to me about the claustrophobia of Balata: “Living in the camp is like this, see”, he says, making a ring shaped gesture with his fingers, “there is nowhere to build, nowhere to go, nowhere to leave to. For many people, the camp is all there is. It’s prison.” The prospects for Balata’s children are severely limited. Alongside the piles of uncollected refuse in the street, there is a terrible sense of wasting youth. With seventy percent of the camp’s population under the age of eighteen, the narrow streets buzz with youthful chatter, but, right now, these children seem destined to a cycle of poverty and unemployment. With classrooms overflowing, it is difficult to motivate children who know they have little chance of finding a job. Nablus is a city gripped in a tight stranglehold of Israeli checkpoints, and while the economy suffocates, the demand for paid work has plummeted. In the Yafa Centre, a small boy asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from Manchester, he asked me if that was somewhere inside or outside the Hawara Checkpoint. Most of these children never leave Balata.
From the heights of Mt. Ebal, you can see the sea. I sit on my rocky perch and look out toward the distant blue smudge of the Mediterranean that hems the Israeli coast. When the wind is strong, you can even taste saltiness on the air. Despite its proximity to Nablus, the children of Balata have never been to the sea. As I walk around the Yafa Centre, I notice that the fantasy of the ocean clearly plays an important role in the imaginative consciousness of the kids. There are children’s paintings of figures standing in waves all over the walls. One of the volunteers shows me a short animation film produced by a local primary school class. It is called “La Vie Sous La Mer”, and is a glittery dreamscape of rippling turquoise water, where Palestinian starfish and Israeli octopus talk. In the children’s underwater kingdom, there is a wall which divides the sea into two halves, separating two enemies who were once brothers. In the final sequence, the wall disintegrates, and the two tribes of fish live together in technicolour harmony. Unfortunately, the physical barrier of the West Bank cannot be bypassed as easily, and the solid eight metres of apartheid wall is impermeable for any normal Palestinian. But these mental transgressions are what Balata children need. Escapism is an essential part of a childhood where violence and killing are routine. Ahmed explains how many of the children in the camp have severe psychological trauma from the bloodshed they have seen. Just a few years ago, these children were pushing past tanks and climbing over bodies to get to school.
Life in Balata is about resistance. The people here will not be broken. Balata has a long history of insurrection: both intifadas were initiated by activist groups within the camp, and a strong spirit of defiance remains integral to the collective psyche. As the sun sets, gangs of shabab loiter on the streets, flicking cigarettes and fiddling with camera phones. These young men are eager to display their scars. One boy turns around and lifts his jumper, revealing a shiny patch of white scar tissue, horribly puckered and twisted, at the base of his back. This boy was fourteen when he was shot, hit by an Israeli sniper for throwing stones at an IDF jeep. For the residents of Balata, scars are the physical marks of resilience. They are badges of endurance, sported by young men like grisly medals of honour. Self-sacrifice is a key signifier in contemporary Palestinian identity, where heroic self-immolation and a readiness for martyrdom have become a powerful national metonymy.
A walk down Martyrs’ Road in the camp is a surreal experience. The walls are covered with sunbleached paper faces, the pale, defiant images of young boys toting massive AK47s. Their names are graffitied in the colours of the Palestinian flag throughout the camp, while the airbrushed glow of their pallid faces hangs on chains from the necks of friends and relatives. A mother stands, cross-armed, in front of one memorial, a white marble slab wreathed with plastic roses, for Noor Faris Njem, shot in the head as he peered round a wall. “This is my son”, she says, pointing at the gold-framed face of a fourteen year old boy. I ask her if she feels sad when she comes here, and her response is resolutely “No, the Israelis took three of my sons, I have no more tears left. I have nothing” Her face hardens, and she says, “we don’t mourn for them because they are in heaven with God. We don’t cry for them because they are not dead but in paradise”. In Palestine there is a fundamental principle of collectivity; there are communal tragedies and communal triumphs, and the lost sons of Balata embody both. The community here is an extreme example of this national togetherness, they share the common goal of independence, and they can never lose faith in it, because, as the bereaved mother of Noor Faris Njem said to me, “without Palestine, there is nothing”.