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Story Publication logo March 7, 2008

Nahr al-Bared Disaster Wrecked Local Economy, Too


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All year, a string of car bombs, assassinations and the encampment of anti-government protesters in...

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This has been Lebanon's coldest winter in 25 years and Rafae Rafae and her family are struggling to make ends meet. Their home, in the village of Bibneen in the North, is not equipped for such harsh weather. There is no fireplace, so when evening begins to draw in, Rafae lights a fire outside on the patio and huddles around it with her five sons and six daughters. They talk and pass the time, looking down the hill from their village at the Mediterranean below as it fades into the night.

The current Lebanese economic winter has lasted a little longer. The rate of inflation has risen sharply since the 2006 summer war with Israel. With unemployment estimated at at least 20 percent and with about 28 percent of its population beneath the poverty line, Lebanon has its fair share of hardship, and it's a hardship which is intensifying.

"I try to save money by shopping less," Rafae says as she warms her hands over the smoldering charcoal. Her husband is not back yet from his job fixing cars in the village.

Since last May, she and other people in her part of the country have to scrimp even more.

The reason for the added woe sits within her evening view of the Mediterranean.

At the bottom of the hill her village is perched on lies the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp — or what's left of it. The three-month conflict that broke out there last May between the Lebanese Army and the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam militant group almost completely destroyed the camp and left a bad taste in the mouths many locals.

"They are the cause of all the bad things," says Rafae of her erstwhile Palestinian neighbors.

As she pours out glasses of tea for her family, she recalls how bullets whizzed above the patio from the conflict zone on an almost daily basis. Many local civilians died because of such stray bullets or rockets.

The Palestinian camps are marginalized spaces in Lebanese society. But Nahr al-Bared was different. The camp was more integrated with its surroundings than any other camp. And the primary glue was trade.

Located on the main road to Syria and right next to the Mediterranean, its location almost guaranteed the camp a place in the constellation of commerce of North Lebanon. Indeed it became one of the brightest stars — a key economic hub in the region

"The Palestinians of the Nahr al-Bared camp sought out the consumer," says Ismael Khashan, a Beirut-based urban planner and architect. "In the 1940s and1950s, they went on donkeys up into the hills and neighboring villages and showed merchandise to the locals. They sold door-to-door. They established a social link with the Lebanese which encouraged them to come down to the camp and trade."

Trade flourished for one main reason: Things were cheaper inside the Nahr al-Bared camp.

Under a deal brokered decades ago by the Palestinian factions, the camps are not governed by the state. Palestinians don't pay taxes and don't charge them on their products either. They also capitalized on the sizable Palestinian diaspora in neighboring Arab states, using it as a de-facto trading network. Many goods found at Nahr al-Bared were smuggled across the nearby porous Syrian border — so no import duties applied either.

The price differences were significant. Rafae and others could buy a block of cheese or a loaf of bread for $0.60 when it cost $1.20 elsewhere. Five kilos of cooking oil set them back $4.50 at Nahr al-Bared, but it would have cost $7 anywhere else. A carton of cigarettes, $4 versus $6 outside the camp.

But that's all gone now. The three-month conflict drove the camp's 33,000 residents out and left most of it in rubble. It also changed the relationships among former trading partners.

"The Lebanese had a good relationship with the Palestinians," says Nadim Talawi, mayor of Mohammra, a town adjacent to the camp. "But some villages beside the camp, like Bibneen, lost soldiers and civilians during the war and this has generated hatred and tension between the communities."

While the militants who took over the camp and sparked the conflict were mostly foreign, many Lebanese blame the Palestinians for allowing them safe harbor. Many of the Lebanese living in the region, like Rafae, feel personally betrayed by their former neighbors and friends. The conflict has changed her outlook. Her purchasing power — although severely diminished — has now become more political.

"I don't think I will be buying any more from them," says Rafae. "Many Lebanese were killed so we won't buy there. I prefer to buy from the Lebanese now — not from Palestinians."

However, not everyone is following suit.

Nahr al-Bared is no more, and in its absence it has become clear how much the local economy was dependent on it. It was an economic and trade anomaly that the area had come to depend on and now that it is gone, the economic reality of Lebanon — the tax, the inflation — has come crashing through.

"The cost of living has risen 60 to 70 percent for most people here," says Mayor Talawi. "Many are managing this change by going into debt."

Those who can't borrow are forced to work more or, like Rafae, buy less.

Another local, Abdel-Qader Saad, had a monthly shopping budget of $200 before the conflict. Since Nahr al-Bared was destroyed, it has risen to $330.

"My wife had to go take a job to help make ends meet," he says. "Our combined salary is now $700 a month. That's $200 more than I used to make alone."

He and others have begun to lament the demise of the camp, and its market.

"The area wants the Palestinian back," says Talawi. "They feel the situation will change because of their return and they want to facilitate this."

For now, approximately 600 families have returned to the part of Nahr al-Bared that was least damaged and some are already showing the entrepreneurial spirit the camp saw in its early days.

Mohammad Saleh al-Hajj, 66, returned to find his two former electrical shops shelled. So in the meantime he has set up shop in a former storage space at the camp — a garage unit.

"I was a rich man before. Now I am very poor," Hajj says, chuckling.

He is lining up a sparse array of plugs, adapters, sockets and wiring on a lone metal shelf in the empty concrete unit. This is his shop now and it is once again open for business.

This and similar efforts being made by the first returnees are the initial stirrings of what may be the return of the vibrant Nahr al-Bared economy. Over the next six months, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) plans to roll out 1,500 prefabricated housing units at the camp for those whose homes were completely destroyed. This week, UNRWA installed a prefabricated school near the camp. The makings of a community are falling back into place.

Rafae is dubious about the return. But sitting beside her by the fire, her son Mahmoud, 20, looks forward to it.

"It's difficult to live and work without them," he says.

Before, he earned $660 a month as a fisherman in the port by the camp. But when the camp was destroyed, so was the local base of cheap labor and the bottom was taken out of the local fishing industry. Mahmoud had to find a new job, selling computer parts and earning just $200 a month.

"We need them for work and to do many things we won't do," he says.

Next to him, his mother holds her tongue and sips her tea.

"And yes, of course, I will go back to the camp to buy things," he adds.

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