Once a massacre site, commerce bustles at Palestinian camp

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- A huge portrait of a Lebanese political figure stands at the entrance to welcome visitors. On both sides of the narrow street there are 2-meter-by-2-meter shops. Crowds of people, mostly men, pass by. They have thick beards and tattoos on their necks and hands, some that proclaim the names of lovers. Their black and brown leather jackets carry a film of dust from the road.

The Sabra and Shatila refugee camps are located in Beirut's southern region. They were established in 1949 to accommodate Palestinian refugees who poured into the area from villages in newly created Israel.

The camps became infamous in 1982, when scores of people living there were killed by Christian Lebanese Phalangists, a pro-Western militia. It's not clear how many people died but estimates range from several hundred to more than 3,000 people.

Two decades later, a new generation has come of age in the camp. Jobs are hard to come by, so many have become shopkeepers. They sell basic goods to camp dwellers but they're also attracting shoppers from elsewhere in Lebanon.

“I go there every now and then to get my DVDs because they are cheaper there,” said one university student who asked to remain anonymous. “I get each DVDs for 750 Lebanese pounds (about 50 cents.) If I buy more than 30, I save up to 2,000 Lebanese pounds (about $1.30) per DVD.”

One Syrian trader sells housewares and electronic appliances in his tiny shop. Most of his customers are Syrian workers who live in Beirut, he said.

“Other shops outside the camp sell similar items but with double the price because they treat the customers in a different way,” he said. “I treat my customers like my brothers and sisters.”

The shops in the camps have retained a more traditional manner of doing business, he said, while the more fashionable shops in downtown Beirut don't bother to communicate with their customers.

The United Nations says more than 8,500 people are registered as refugees in the camps. There are just two schools and one healthcare center. Throughout the camps, sanitation is a problem. Kleenex, sandwich foils, cigarette butts and other trash is scattered on the ground. Garbage flows freely from giant cans.

People in the camps lack basic services, said Akram Shehayeb, a government deputy and a former minister.

"They are living a miserable life with tough circumstances," he said.

Even so, the camps are attracting more shoppers than ever before. Stores in Beirut's trendy neighborhoods are spacious and built to avoid overcrowding. In the camps, shopkeepers wedge their wares in wherever they can and their cheaper prices and knock-off products keep customers coming back for more.

One woman, a mother of four, said she buys her fruit and vegetables from shops in the camps.

“Whenever I go to Beirut to get some official papers done, I pass by Sabra to buy some groceries,” she said. “They are as good as other products from other markets but with a much lower price.”

Ayham, a 30-year-old Syrian man, sells watches from a shopping cart. He said he buys them wholesale from stores in Lebanon and Syria and sells them for $3 to $30 or more.

“The prices are much cheaper here since we don’t pay rent and don’t have expenses,” Ayham said.