Tough homecoming for Lebanon's refugees

After three months of fighting, Palestinians return to flattened refugee camp.

Abu Tawfiq stands in the soot-encrusted ruin of his home as cold rain blows in where an outside wall once stood.

"This room is Hiroshima and the other one is Nagasaki," says the former school teacher who, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

He's one of some 5,000 Palestinians who recently returned to the battle-ravaged ruins of this coastal refugee camp in north Lebanon, home to more than 40,000 people before the outbreak in May of three months of fighting between the Lebanese Army and Al-Qaeda-inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam.

The 106-day confrontation – Lebanon's worst internal violence since the end of the 1975-90 civil war – killed 168 soldiers, over 200 militants, and dozens of civilians and turned Nahr al-Bared into a wasteland of flattened buildings. The buildings still standing have had doors and windows blasted out, roofs caved in from artillery shelling, and walls pocked by rockets and machine-gun fire.

The Lebanese government in September secured pledges of $22 million from international donors to help the refugees, far short of the estimated $382.5 million needed to provide relief and rebuild Nahr al-Bared. The government has said it will rebuild the camp, but has offered no specifics nor deadlines. With Lebanon gripped by deep political crisis over the forthcoming presidential election, the fate of the camp falls low on the government's list of priorities.

The Palestinians began returning to their homes on Oct. 10, just over a month after the fighting ended. Their homes are located in the "new camp," a spillover cordon ringing the original plot of land earmarked by the Lebanese government in 1948 for the refugees. The "old camp," which saw the worst of the fighting, remains off-limits to Lebanese troops and appears to have been completely destroyed.

Despite the terrible conditions inside Nahr al-Bared, the Palestinians say they are returning partly because the camp is their home and because many cannot afford the skyrocketing rents at the Badawi refugee camp, seven miles to the south. The Badawi camp took in the bulk of the evacuees fleeing Nahr al-Bared at the onset of the fighting. The demand for somewhere to stay saw rent for even a garage soar from $25 a month to $200, a huge sum for the impoverished refugees.

"Before the fighting, you could have rented a three-bedroom house in Badawi for $100," says Abu Mohammed, a newly returned refugee. Like all residents interviewed, Abu Mohammed spoke on condition of anonymity.

Access to Nahr al-Bared is still tightly controlled by the Lebanese army.

Journalists are banned from the camp and only a few non-governmental organizations and the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees have been allowed inside.

Troops suspected of looting camps

The restricted access is compounding allegations made by returning Palestinians that Lebanese troops looted, vandalized, and torched their homes, in some cases after the cessation of fighting and before the refugees began returning home. The walls of homes are covered with graffiti, some patriotic messages signed by individual army units, others insults directed toward the Palestinians.

In Mahmoud's home, sacks of stored flour, rice, and sugar were sliced open with knives or bayonets and spilled onto the floor. Two rooms were set on fire, the walls and ceiling streaked with black lines from the flammable liquid thought to have started the blaze.

"We had one television smashed and one stolen, three radios stolen, and $8,000 in cash stolen," says Mahmoud. "The soldiers wrote us a note saying that the money was for them not us."

Last week, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International called on the Lebanese government to launch an inquiry into the alleged arson and looting.

In response, the Lebanese government said in a statement that it "does not accept at all any violation of the law or human rights, especially against our Palestinian refugee brothers."

A spokesman at the Lebanese Ministry of Defense declined to comment, saying it was an internal military issue.

The allegations have gained little traction in the Lebanese media. The army won considerable praise and respect and boosted national pride during the bloody campaign against Fatah al-Islam, and its image of sacrifice and nobility risks being tarnished by the airing of reputed misdeeds in Nahr al-Bared.

A senior Lebanese army officer said that soldiers had little choice but to adopt tough measures against the militants.

"The terrorists booby-trapped entire buildings with explosives. They had to be set on fire to safely detonate bombs. This was a very tough enemy we were fighting," the officer says.

All that is of little consequence to the returning Palestinians. It took two weeks for Abu Tawfiq and his family of 12 to clear the rubble from the ruins of his home. One outer wall and several internal walls were blasted away during the fighting. There is no running water, no electricity, and no sanitation, forcing refugees to defecate into plastic bags.

"We are going to put up a tent inside our home for the winter," Abu Tawfiq says.

Summer clothes in winter

Most Palestinians had fled the fighting dressed in light summer clothes.

With their household goods destroyed, many continue to wear T-shirts and shorts despite the freezing rain, sloshing through ankle-deep mud in flip-flops.

Medics report increased cases of diarrhea, infections from cuts, chest and stomach problems, and even a few cases of dysentery.

"No socks, no jackets, no shoes, they are living in houses with no doors or windows. The situation is very bad and if it stays like this it will become a catastrophe," says Ahmad Tayyar, who runs a makeshift clinic in an abandoned house.

Yet, despite the miserable circumstances, seven young brides and grooms were married on Friday, a chance for the Palestinians to briefly forget their woes and celebrate instead. Gathered in a reception hall, guests and children dressed as clowns danced and clapped to the beat of drums, ignoring the icy drip of rainwater seeping in through the shrapnel holes in the roof.

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