Live through this | Karl Schembri

Journalist turned humanitarian worker Karl Schembri has witnessed the human toll of an illegal Israeli occupation and the exodus of Syrian and Palestinian refugees up close. ‘It’s bleak,’ he tells MATTHEW VELLA

Karl Schembri (left) accompanies members of the press and refugees from the Syrian conflict
Karl Schembri (left) accompanies members of the press and refugees from the Syrian conflict

"It looks like Malta's become smaller," Karl Schembri says as he finally sits down in the familiar place he occupied in the editorial boardroom at MaltaToday. Since leaving the paper, where he was news editor, the 35-year-old media advisor at Oxfam has witnessed the human condition at its bravest and under the most testing of circumstances, tracing a journey from occupied Gaza, to the settlements on the West Bank, the refugee camps of Palestinians in Lebanon and the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Today he is on the island for the Mediterranean Literature Festival and a brief stay before returning back 'home'. "I have seen such hysterics, perhaps stemming from the change in government, or maybe from our insularity... it looks like a place that has become smaller for an individual to thrive in, intellectually. It is normal to view life here as being in the centre of the world, but still, it looks like Malta's become smaller," Schembri says. His stories of the adversity Gazans endure under the Israeli occupation are enough to jolt the most jaded of us. Or are they?

"I could give you cabinets of facts about the Palestinian question, about the way Palestine is being shrunk by the occupation. But facts don't move people," says Schembri, whose work with Oxfam at the Zaatari camp and in Lebanon involves creating awareness and advocacy and bringing to the world the human side of the Syrian conflict, from inside the Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps and even in the host communities.

Passju Taħt Ix-Xita is published by Horizon Books.

Karl Schembri (@karl_schembri) is also the author of Il-Manifest Tal-Killer and Taħt il-Kappa tax-Xemx


Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp, lies seven kilometres to the south of the Syrian border inside Jordan. It hosts 120,000 refugees from the conflict, which produced, in no time, over two million refugees. Palestinian refugees from the conflict, themselves refugees from the Israeli wars who were granted asylum by the Assad regime, have also fled to Lebanon's camps.

Schembri's work in the Middle East, which has also featured extensively in MaltaToday, includes accompanying journalists to witness a side of the war and conflict that people at home may otherwise find all too easy to lose interest in. "We can easily grow accustomed to the images of war on our screens and become desensitised to what's going on - it's been raging for two years now, but there is still a huge gap in aid funds and diplomatic solutions, which not everybody is aware of."

He imparts a pithy snapshot of what perhaps we should be thinking about.

"You have to consider that these people, whatever their social background or religion might be, never believed that they would end up in this situation - become refugees.  They feel humiliated, because the crisis has been allowed to fester for over two years. And the unthinkable has happened in their life.

"There is so much anger and great frustration. Even the poorest of these refugees know that they hailed from a socialist country where all basic services were provided. From a green country, they are now living in a desert, in Jordan, strapped for water or crammed inside apartments with large families. There is a huge feeling of helplessness."

So it's not difficult to imagine being someone whose life in a relatively stable and peaceful country is suddenly overturned with no hope in sight...

"It's not... you could have been a professional, an MD, and suddenly your neighbourhood is surrounded by snipers, you're caught in the crossfire of this conflict and forced to take sides."

It gets more complex for former Palestinian refugees who were welcomed into Syria, whose lives under al-Assad's regime were far different from those of compatriots living in the camps in Lebanon. "Palestinian refugees represent 10% of the Syrian war refugee population and are amongst the least acknowledged of the refugee population. In Syria they actually had a decent life - enjoying full rights as citizens, access to employment, enjoying political representation. They were treated as equals. Taking sides in such a conflict is even more difficult for them."

In contrast, life in Lebanon for Palestinian refugees - numbering 455,000 in the country since 1948 - is a far cry from the one they had in Syria. Refugees hailing from the Lebanon camps, transformed into overcrowded ghettos, have been barred from citizenship and access to certain jobs. "There's an entire generation of children that will be missing out on school and who don't even see the point of going to school," Schembri says.

"It's bleak, no doubt about it. Because all the sectarian conflict that has erupted all of a sudden was never an issue before: there's a very fragmented rebel front versus a compact regime, and the international community is divided along similar lines, with the EU lifting the arms embargo to arm the rebels, and the Russians selling weapons to the regime."

The helplessness is only made worse by the thickening fog of war from a belated intervention by the United States and the United Kingdom. A mock letter by al-Assad on satirical US website The Onion perfectly captures the empire's dilemma splendidly: "If you do something about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. Morally speaking, you're on the hook for those deaths no matter how you look at it," the fake al-Assad candidly tells his listeners. "So, it's your move, America. What's it going to be?"

Because it's been two years since the international community opted to 'watch in horror' at the massacre unfolding in Syria. With Russia and China backing Syria, there is no chance of a Security Council backed mandate for intervention. The Syrian rebels themselves do not want to see foreign troops on the ground, and a bombing campaign will result in untold deaths. Enforcing a no-fly zone will cost billions; the prospect of Syria turning into an Iraqi albatross is a burden no world power wants to entertain. And as the dethronement of Gaddafi and Mubarak has clearly shown, the opposition's fragmentation is a premonition of future sectarian conflict.

"There is a feeling amongst the refugees I meet that they know the situation can only worsen as things turn into an arms race. The things I find touching are stories like those of an 80-year-old farmer who's lost his land in the war, and all he dreams of is getting back there to sit under a tree.

"The delay in investigating the chemical attacks on Syrians has meant that building up an intervention is only going to escalate the situation. Even hardliners don't want foreign boots on the ground. Oxfam wants to see the United States, Russia and the Arab League seriously pushing for a diplomatic solution and a peace conference. The majority of Syrians are fed up, they are the net losers at the end of the day, and with almost two million refugees, we are just achieving milestones of shame."

The palpable abnormality of life as a refugee from the Syria conflict is suddenly juxtaposed with what would pass off as the 'normality' of life under the Israeli occupation, which Schembri has seen from both outside and inside, moving from work as a journalist with Ramattan agency in the West Bank to Oxfam coordinator inside Gaza.

"The irony of life in Palestine is witnessing the nitty-gritty of the Israeli occupation. Travelling the distance of Sliema to Msida in Gaza means that you will be stopped at a checkpoint - which is still illegal by international law - by some young, arrogant Israeli soldier, to check your citizenship document, and having to see pregnant women and the elderly waiting in long queues in the heat.

"Feeling the rage that such a situation generates is something you don't grasp when you read about it. Living there transmits the outrage that such an occupation provokes."

But as Schembri points out, it's the 'success' of this very occupation that makes life for some 1.7 million Palestinians here more surreal than abnormal. For the past five years, the illegal blockade - in response to the sporadic rocket attacks fired by small armed groups into Israel - has meant a complete lock-in for the Gazan economy and a stop to their freedom of movement, even on health grounds.

"The 'occupation' can become a desensitised word when it becomes a way of life. Palestinians have been born into this reality, and a new generation doesn't know Palestinians living in other territories: you find people in the West Bank fearing Palestinians in Gaza, thinking they all have beards and are Islamists. So the division creeping into the unity once fostered under Yasser Arafat is a 'successful' outcome of the occupation, an occupation that is political, social and economic."

But Schembri's experience among the Gazans is not the impression fostered by Israel since the election and later deposition of the Hamas government, of a people intent on the destruction of the country. "The majority of Gazans are not warmongering but are peace loving and simply craving for a life. You see dozens being awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and then they are prevented from leaving Gaza because of the blockade. That's a life that has been stalled, and for what? I am amazed at the way Gazans retain a sense of sanity."

The art of the occupation has left a divided Palestine, whose disunity was perhaps exemplified by the rejection of the democratically elected Hamas government in the 2006 elections, defeating the PLO-affiliated Fatah party. But the party was immediately placed under pressure by the suspension of Palestine's foreign assistance funds, with tensions between Fatah and Hamas deteriorating into open conflict in Gaza in 2007. When Hamas retained control of Gaza, Israel and Egypt imposed an economic blockade.

"The politicians changed the rules of the game," Schembri notes, bracing the failure to recognise democracy, warts and all, to the current crisis in Egypt.

"As bleak as it sounds, no revolution takes place over just two years. Europe endured centuries of revolutions and conflict, and silent revolutions like the Industrial Revolution that left millions dead from poverty and starvation. There was never a guarantee that toppling Hosni Mubarak would have led to a democracy overnight.

"But having the army overthrowing a democratically elected government in a coup is in itself undemocratic. The Arab world was a pressure cooker, and we all knew it would get messy when it explodes.

"We often complain of our own governments being undemocratic - in the USA it's because of the power of lobbies, in Italy it's because of corruption, and in Malta it's because of patronage. But the safeguard to that is not overthrowing a government, but having strong constitutional safeguards. Which is what Mohammed Morsi did not do."

The overthrow of the Morsi government now risks sending Islamists underground, holding out the army's coup as an example of the failure that democracy represents to Arabs. But this is the very lesson that has to be learnt from the Palestinian experience.

"We have to let even Islamists try and prove what they can do in government when politics and religion are mixed together. We have to let them be put to the test. Otherwise, the resistance to another Mubarak-style government will just force anyone to become an Islamist."

Schembri's experiences find a different kind of voice in his first solo poetry work, Passju Taħt Ix-Xita (Hopscotch under the rain), exemplified by his ode to Muhammed Bughazizi, the fruit merchant whose self-immolation was the "blaze so many more martyrs had to walk behind" when the Arab world woke up to dethrone the dictators who had held sway over their lives for too long.

"In Palestine I focused on the facts, because my job was getting out the news. But even those facts aren't enough to move people. Somehow poetry and fiction is what I write when the facts themselves stop saying the truth," Schembri says, giving a wry smile as he exhales the smoke from his third Gauloise.

"It's rare to be able to evoke the human rage when you're reporting it. For eight days under the Israeli attacks in Operation Pillar of Defence, all I focused was on getting the facts out. After that was over, it still hadn't sunk in. And poetry gave me a platform of liberty to adopt the voices that I encounter on the streets and evoke the raw emotions these experiences give me. Love, hate, envy, misery, despair, even total exultation."

He extinguishes his cigarette in an empty plastic coffee cup. "It allows me to adopt a different personality. Without the need to see a psychiatrist."