Lebanese Attempt To Go Home Again

After years of war, officials are planning to return refugees to the lands they fled

LEBANON, which provided an early model for the kind of disintegration that Yugoslavia is now going through, has started trying to repair the social damage of war by reintegrating its alienated communities - a kind of "ethnic cleansing" in reverse.

An ambitious new plan backed by the Beirut government would return to their original homes hundreds of thousands of people displaced by successive upheavals during years of civil conflict which began in 1975 and ended, more or less, in 1990. But many of the refugees themselves remain fearful, and meanwhile many of their homes have been destroyed or occupied by other refugees.

The war saw Muslims driven out of Christian areas, Christians displaced from the Druze-controlled mountains, and many other flights of refugees, which prompted fears that partition along sectarian lines might become a reality.

Many of the refugees were thrown into poverty, and have lived in crowded, squalid conditions since their flight. Fear, continued conflict, the state's weakness, and a host of practical problems have made it impossible for the refugees to go home.

The government's plan will have to overcome all those difficulties, and many of the refugees themselves are skeptical. But one of the strongest things the plan has going for it is the deep desire of most of the displaced to go home. Fiercely attached to their homes and lands, most of the refugees have never given up hope of returning.

"What do I have here? Nothing," says a Christian refugee whose village of Ras al-Harf in the Shouf mountains was overrun by the Druze militia in 1983. He is now squatting in a former Muslim neighborhood near the port of Beirut, and scraping together a living by running a small grocery store.

"We are sons of the mountain. We have big lands up there. How can I be happy sitting in a small room down here? We used to be able to live off the land - tomatoes, cucumbers, apples. We kept sheep, we grew fruit. We were kings up there. We're paupers here," he adds.

But fear and mistrust remain powerful deterrents. Many of the the displaced were traumatized when they were dislodged from their homes. Few of those interviewed agreed to give their names.

"We're not going back, because they killed 400 of us up there, all Christians, in the Bhamdoun area," said a woman from the mountains who fled the Druze onslaught nine years ago. "If we're going to go back and live with [the Druze] and have our children killed, we don't want it."

Another Christian woman from the mountains still breaks down when she remembers what happened in 1983. "They killed my fiance and his four brothers three days before we were due to get married," she says. "The whole village fled. We have a nice house there, a villa. Of course I would like to go back, but I prefer to stay here. We are afraid. We could not sleep in our home when we think all night, now they will open our door and kill us."

To try to overcome such widely shared fears, the government has deployed the Lebanese Army in the 116 villages in various parts of the country that are included in the first phase of the plan. They have strict orders to patrol day and night and to do everything possible to encourage the displaced to return.

"Confidence cannot be given by words, only by acts," says Elie Hobeiqa, the government minister in charge of the scheme. "What I can do is show people that this is a safe place for them to go and live, and this needs time.

"If they see the Army and its deployment," he adds, "not as propaganda but as something real and physical, I think they will hurry to return."

Mr. Hobeiqa's office has compiled a database of some 280,000 refugees, but he reckons that is only about half of the total.

Some of the displaced suspect the government is pushing the plan simply as a vote-catcher in the parliamentary elections it has called for Aug. 23, in which their plight is a major issue.

"Of course it's a maneuver - if it wasn't, they would postpone the elections so that we can go back to our homes properly, then we'd know they were sincere," says one angry Christian refugee. But Hobeiqa insists the process is serious and irreversible.

Since the plan officially got under way on July 21, few have been able to repossess their original homes. But this is no surprise to officials, because of the complex logistics involved in returning people to homes that have been occupied by others for many years.

The emphasis has so far been on setting up local reconciliation committees in each village, including those trying to come back and those currently living in the area.

Officials have had to spend a lot of time not only reconciling obvious former enemies, such as the Christians and the Druze. In some cases, reconciliation was needed between members of the same Christian clan who were divided by ideology and fought on different sides during the war.

"We think that to complete something like 50 or 60 per cent of [the first phase], we need about six months," says Hobeiqa. "Then we'll get the second phase going in parallel, choosing another 100 or so villages."

Overcoming fear is in some ways the easy part. The practical problems are more daunting.

Mohammad Awad is a Muslim who lives with his wife Sofia and five children in a rented house in the formerly Christian township of Naameh, 10 miles south of Beirut. The Christians of Naameh fled to the Christian heartland north of Beirut in 1976 when Palestinian guerrillas took over, making room for refugees like Mr. Awad. He lost his home in the Karantina district near the port of Beirut when it was stormed by the Christian militia in January 1976. He would like to go back. "We are ready to return to our

area at any time when things are prepared in terms of security and construction," he says. "We have no problem."

But Awad does have a problem. Since 1983, his house in Karantina has been occupied by Christian refugees from the mountains, where what was once their home has been destroyed. Awad and the refugees are parts of a chain, and there are complications involved in every link.

"Just let them rebuild my house, and let there be security for me and my children, and I'll go back," says the woman who now lives in Awad's house with her husband and five children. She says another daughter was murdered in the mountain town of Bhamdoun in 1980.

Awad's wife visited her old home and told the Christians living there that they were welcome to stay until their own house was rebuilt. But even once the property is vacated, Awad has another problem.

"The family has grown since we left in 1976," he says. "We were one family, now we are eight. To build housing for the others, we need at least $60,000 - and we don't have it."

"It has become a financial problem rather than a political one," says Hobeiqa, who is optimistic that the necessary money to fund the return program can be raised locally and internationally.

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