Palestinians' bittersweet homecoming in Lebanon

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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?"

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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.

Meanwhile, refugees "have been without their clothes, without the documents, without their children's toys for eight months. The fathers are without an income and waiting for handouts by the international community," Mr. Disselkoen adds.

Taha, more fortunate than most, has found a job as a relief worker to complement his jobs as a nurse and a teacher.

Now, he and his family of 12 share a classroom floor in Beddawi refugee camp. A blue tarpaulin covers his family's neatly arranged possessions – blankets, portable grill, buckets for preparing food – that were donated by charities. Kids' shoes line the shelf beneath the chalkboard.

Tensions have risen between Nahr al-Bared refugees and Beddawi residents. They'd initially welcomed the newcomers, who doubled the camp's population, but are now fed up. There have been reports of school fights, rent hikes, and higher prices for Nahr al-Bared residents in Beddawi stores.

Outside Beddawi, resentment is even greater. Many Lebanese blame Palestinians for triggering the 1975-1990 civil war. Last year, the Army lost some 170 soldiers, many of whom were local. Refugees clustered in schools created tensions with Lebanese neighbors, sparking teachers' strikes and protests in December.

Siniora's appeals have yielded $42 million from international donors for relief. He will issue further appeals for reconstruction.

But the relief efforts have dredged up contentious issues regarding Lebanon's "guests." Palestinians have lived in legal limbo since the first 100,000 fled into Lebanon, displaced by the Arab-­Israeli wars in 1948. The camps they settled in became crowded ghettos where refugees live without the right to work in many professions, travel abroad, or own property. They may not become citizens.

Opposition is deep to expanding rights for the 300,000 Palestinian refugees, who are mostly Sunni, or naturalizing them. . Siniora has denied that he might consider that step.

Still, the Nahr al-Bared refugees' situation has revived other long unresolved issues. It "makes you ask questions that have not been asked for the last 60 years," says Shehadi. "How do you give them property? How do you organize security? What are the implications for other camps?"

Siniora's proposal to assert military authority over Nahr al-Bared would overturn the tradition that allows armed Palestinian factions to police the camp.

"This is a very sensitive area," says UNRWA's Disselkoen. "The Army wants to make sure that if there is a next time ... they have an easier access that is clear."

At a closed meeting last month, military officials said they want wider streets and shorter buildings in the rebuilt camp, and restricted access to the sea, he says. That constricts space for homes and businesses. And for Palestinians, the prospect of tanks rolling in recalls massacres and destruction at other camps during the civil war.

Fueling anger are reports from human rights monitors that some Palestinians were arbitrarily detained, beaten, or tortured by troops after fighting broke out. Others returned to homes burned and looted in areas under Army control.

Still, Taha and other former residents of Nahr al-Bared are eager for a fresh start. "It's where we were born, where we grew up. Our memories are there. Our people who died are there," he says.

Don Duncan contributed. This reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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