Angelina Jolie has been here, but this time it was only us.  I don’t know how many Palestinians are stranded in the camp.  The numbers evidently vary as people come and go.  My guess is that there were around 1200 people in the camp, but I am not very good at these sort of estimates.  I have heard estimates ranging from around 900-2000.  These people had come from Baghdad around three years ago.  During the bad days a couple years ago, various groups could not agree on much, but they often agreed that they did not like Palestinians.  We really didn’t have a plan or any reason to go to the camp; we only wanted to see it because we are often asked about such things.  It was not what I thought, not the picture I had in mind.

Actually the PICTURE was what I expected, the UNHCR tents, squalor and crowds of people hanging around w/o much to do.  What was different from my mental model was what was going on and the people themselves.  The people were friendly, but not particularly interesting in us.  A few kids came around; some people gawked a bit, but most just went around their business, such as it was. 

I stopped at a tent where they were selling fruit and vegetables.  The bananas looked fresh and better than those we get in the chow hall.  Tomatoes looked wholesome, but were imperfect, i.e. lots of bruises and nicks.  Only the cauliflower didn’t look acceptable.  It was past prime and browning.  It was probably suitable only for soup.  All the fruits and vegetables were well presented and the shopping area was neat.  The shopkeeper told me that his wares came from Rutbah; most originated in Syria, but still came through Rutbah.  I thought that was a little odd that things coming from Syria would pass right by the camp, go all the way to Rutbah and then come back, but the guy insisted that was the case.  The grocery tent also sold rice and flour. I noticed that it said “product of Syria” in English on the bags.  He didn’t have much rice on hand.

In nearby tents you could buy the other necessities of life such as cigarettes (Galois was the only brand I saw on offer) and various types of soft drinks.  I didn’t see any contraband such as alcohol, but I didn’t look very hard.  One shop featured as small number of canned good and there were some small consumer electrical products. 

Just having a market surprised me but it makes sense.  People naturally organize themselves around markets if they get the chance.  The refugees get a food ration, so these foodstuffs are just supplements.

I didn’t see any fresh meat in the shops, but I did see fresh meat being produced.  We were greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of butchering as we walked into the camp.  I was not impressed by the sanitary conditions.   We didn’t actually see the sheep slaughtered, but when we came in the blood was still flowing, running downhill and soaking into the sand.  They had cut the head clean off and set it near the carcass.  By the time we had finished our visit; they had largely skinned the beast and killed another.  We did not see ourselves but were told that the butchers just toss the waste products near the highway overpass.  We did see tuffs of hair blowing in the wind.

The camp featured a recreation hall and a school.  We didn’t want to go into the school because we didn’t want to disrupt the classes.  The recreation hall was decent sized.  There was a fine pool table with some guys were playing pool.   They evidently had no cue ball, but that did not deter them.   There was also a few guys playing checkers and the television was on, tuned to Al Jazeera news. 

The camp was an unpleasant place, but nobody looked undernourished or even very poorly dressed.  This time of the year life is probably not very uncomfortable, but in the colder times of the winter and especially during the oppressive heat of summer conditions must be almost unbearable.  At any time of the year, boredom must be a factor.