BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon: The gravedigger of Burj al-Barajneh has a tough job. He’s been working in the camp’s only cemetery since 1986, when the bloody War of the Camps put many refugee camps under siege and kept the bodies coming.
And Salim Safadi’s job is about to get harder. Limited room and a growing population means space in Burj al-Barajneh’s cemetery, and in most of Lebanon’s other refugee camps, is precious and dwindling fast. Already, camp residents are re-opening graves to stack relatives’ bodies. In time, Safadi says he’ll have to break into the concrete and tile that surrounds the raised coffins, to make way for new dead.
Sharif Souki, head of cemeteries in the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s association for the families of martyrs and wounded, explains how dire the situation has become.
In the north, Nahr al-Bared’s cemetery is full, and Beddawi’s is nearly so. In the south, Ain al-Hilweh’s two cemeteries are also packed. As for the refugee camps in and around Tyre, there is one each in Bass, Burj al-Shemali and Rashidieh. “These are almost full,” he says. Mar Elias has no cemetery, and Shatila has two cemeteries that are over-capacity from 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, and later wars.
Refugees are now digging each grave deeper than before, planning for the future deaths of loved ones. Although this practice sometimes is at odds with Islamic law, many see no other option.
Safadi says the overcrowding in Burj al-Barajneh first became apparent in the late 1990s. There is empty space at the cemetery’s edge, but only those who do not already have family graves are permitted to break ground there.
At the well-kept cemetery, which holds some 1,800 tombs, it is not unusual to see three or four names on one tombstone. Safadi believes each grave can hold the remains of up to 10 people, and that even if he breaks through the space between the graves, the cemetery will only hold out for another 10 years or so.
Souki is less optimistic. “In one or two years we will have a big problem in all the Palestinian camps. Death never stops, and graves are running out.”
Refugees have found few alternatives to adding to the underground overcrowding. “We are asking ourselves whether we should burn our dead, and throw their remains into the sea,” Souki says dejectedly.
In Ain al-Hilweh, fed up with the space crisis, residents’ protests drew the attention of Palestinian officials who last month closed a deal to buy land for a graveyard not far from the camp.
The land, in the nearby village of Darb al-Sin, came at a cost of $750,000. A down payment has already been made, but according to Souki another $200,000 is still needed. UNRWA says it will “look into the possibility of contributing” to renovations.
Several years ago, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt donated a piece of land in Siblin for a new Palestinian cemetery. Souki says that “refugees in Beirut complain that it is far, but we are forced to use it.”
He adds that in principle, UNRWA should be responsible for providing cemetery space “but it is not doing so currently and has never done so.” It does provide services, he says, including helping to purpose-fit the Siblin site. UNRWA, which was involved in the Jumblatt deal, says it was among the groups that contributed funds.
An UNRWA spokesperson told The Daily Star that “cemeteries do not fall directly under the agency’s mandate,” but because the problem “touches the dignity of the human being UNRWA is sparing no effort to find solutions.”
In Nahr al-Bared, where most residents are still not back home after a 2007 conflict between the Lebanese Army and an Islamist faction left the area devastated, the graveyard is packed and a new one hasn’t yet been secured in the rebuilt camp. Residents are hoping to build on land where the Army is currently stationed. Souki says the land is owned by the PLO, and that “in line with an agreement reached with the army, the army will provide us with an alternative land or with money to buy one.”
UNRWA says it is in contact with the Lebanese Army about the issue, and is “supporting the Nahr al-Bared community in [its efforts to] secure an additional piece of land in Nahr al-Bared to be used as a cemetery.”
Burial outside the camps is not always a viable alternative.
If a Palestinian family wants to bury its dead in a Lebanese cemetery, this is usually only allowed if the family already has a space there. In this case, the deceased are placed in the same grave as their relatives, and pay the same fees as Lebanese. In the camps, where economic worries are a constant, burial is free.
In Burj al-Barajneh, the tired looking Safadi can’t see a solution to the crisis. He asks for a painkiller. His job, he explains, is giving him a headache.
Souki says Palestinian authorities are looking for a way out, but with space at a premium and money scarce, a solution does not seem imminent. In the meantime, he and others are fed up, packing their dead together after lives spent in exile, in overcrowded camps.
“Imagine the bitterness I feel,” he says. “I don’t have a place to be buried, after not having a house during my life.”