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Palestinians' bittersweet homecoming in Lebanon

Residents started returning Monday to the Nahr al-Bared camp, which was damaged in fighting last year.

By William WheelerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2008

Home: Some families who took refuge in Beddawi began moving into temporary units at their old camp this week.

William Wheeler

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Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon

Rabie Taha's first sign of hope has arrived: 300 prefabricated homes that families are moving into this week on a lot at Nahr al-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp largely destroyed in fighting last summer between Lebanese soldiers and radical Islamic militants.

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After nine months of sleeping on crowded classroom floors of a nearby refugee camp, Mr. Taha's family is among those slated to move into the units in their former community. The move is part of a plan to return 1,500 of the 5,000 families still displaced by August. A prefab school also opened to students Monday.

For many refugees, the joy of returning is dampened by lingering bitterness over the extensive damage at the camp and the half-year delay in returning. "Why all, all, all our camp destroyed," asks Ahmed Abueid. "Why? The battle is finished [six] months, why we not return to our home?"

The reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared has moved forward slowly. It is the largest such effort ever for the UN Works and Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which aids Palestinian refugees, including the 30,000 displaced by last year's conflict.

Nor has the government ever rebuilt an entire Palestinian camp. "There is a serious lack of capacity and the [displacement] crisis is overwhelming everybody," says Nadim Shehadi, a consultant on the effort.

The battle erupted last May between Fatah al-Islam – mostly foreign militants with reported ties to Al Qaeda – and an unprepared Army. It was Lebanon's worst internal crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

When the militants were defeated in September, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora vowed to rebuild the camp under military authority as a bulwark against future violence. The plan also calls for improving squalid infrastructure, which fosters a climate of desperation, says Mr. Shehadi.

Preliminary estimates put the cost as high as $382 million for relief operations and to improve the camp and surrounding Lebanese villages.

While 1,200 families have since been allowed to return to the "New Camp," the section of Nahr al-Bared least damaged in the fighting, no one will be allowed to return to homes in the "Old Camp" – the mazelike center where militants had dug in. That section will be demolished in preparation for reconstruction.

The project has been hampered by mines and booby traps that have claimed dozens of lives so far. "[Demining] could take weeks, months; the timeline is impossible," says UNRWA's Henri Disselkoen.