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Story Publication logo March 11, 2008

As Rebuilding Begins at Lebanon's Nahr al-Bared, Displaced Refugees Eager to Return

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

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Nael Abu Siam is struggling to keep reality at bay for his children. Ten months ago, his home was destroyed in a conflict between Lebanese soldiers and radical Islamic militants at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

"First I told them that nothing has changed, just that we change houses to repair the first one," said the 40-year Palestinian refugee.

But as the months went by, the pretext has become more difficult to sustain. The members of the Siam family are among 33,000 Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes by the conflict at Nahr al-Bared. Most of them fled to Beddawi, the closest of 12 such camps around the country.

Meanwhile, most of Nahr al-Bared remains sealed off behind army checkpoints. For more than 4,000 families like the Siams, who sleep in borrowed classrooms and community centers or crowd the homes of family and friends, their eagerness to return even among the rubble has grown to desperate proportions.

But last week saw the first glint of hope for the refugees, when families began moving into 300 prefabricated homes beside the ruins of their former community. Nael and his family are among those planning to move into the units this month, the first wave of 1,500 slated to return by August.

It is the first concrete evidence that an ambitious plan to rebuild the camp is going forward in spite of the country's deepening political stalemate. But the scope of the unprecedented effort ahead makes it a likely casualty if the stalemate between Lebanon's Western-backed rulers and an opposition movement allied with Hezbollah worsens.

The battle here erupted in May between the al-Qaida-affiliated militants of Fatah al-Islam and an unprepared national army. When the militants were defeated in early September, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora promised the camp would be rebuilt under army control to stave off future violence. The rebuilding effort is the largest undertaking in the history of the Untied Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has provided for Palestinian refugees for nearly 60 years.

The tab for relief, reconstruction and economic development in the camp and surrounding villages could reach more than $300 million. Appeals for relief aid have brought in $42 million so far. Siniora has said he plans to call for more help from donors in the months ahead.

"Neither the Lebanese government nor UNRWA have the experience or the capacity to handle this," said Nadim Shehadi, who is advising the government of the effort. "Since the Palestinians left Palestine and went to camps, which are meant to be temporary accommodation, where they have no property technically, the situation has continued on a temporary basis with temporary arrangements."

Sixty years ago, the Arab-Israeli war pushed 100,000 from their homes in the British Mandate of Palestine and across the border into Lebanon. They settled in camps that grew into concrete ghettoes over the decades.

In many ways, the plight of Lebanon's refugees is worse than that of other Palestinians because they face legal and economic exclusion and are clustered in packed tenements.

Siniora's government began examining ways to address some of these conditions in 2005, renewing diplomatic ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization and establishing a dialogue committee to represent various Palestinian factions. But this summer's violence created a new impetus.

But the violence also stirred up old resentment in a country here many blame the Palestinians for their role in triggering the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

Even though the Fatah al-Islam militants included non-Palestinians from around the region, some from surrounding villages have protested the camp's rebuilding. Nearly 170 soldiers died in the battle at Nahr al-Bared, many from neighboring towns.

Rights monitors have reported the physical abuse of Palestinian civilians by local residents and soldiers. Many have returned to find their homes looted or burned since the fighting ended.

The arrival of the Nahr al-Bared refugees effectively doubled the population of the smaller Beddawi camp. As a result, tensions have risen between the Nahr al-Bared refugees and Beddawi residents. There have been reports of discrimination, fights and stabbings.

The army's plan to assume control of the rebuilt camp would reverse the 40-year tradition that allows Palestinian factions to police themselves there.

For Palestinians, the prospect of military control revives the trauma of the recent conflict, in which more than 40 civilians died and the majority lost their homes.

"In the Palestinian minds this is very sensitive because they have had these experience before in '47 when people left Palestine and they thought they would be back in a couple of days," said UNRWA's Henri Disselkoen. "People have been blaming their fathers and grandfathers [for leaving Palestine sixty years ago] and now the same happened to them."

Siniora reaffirmed his commitment to the reconstruction at a press conference last month, a move to assuage Palestinians' fears about the delays. He also reiterated that his administration will not naturalize the 300,000 predominately Sunni Palestinians in Lebanon. Such a move is widely perceived as a threat to the country's precarious sectarian balance. That message comes amid increasing hostilities between Siniora's government and Shiite-dominated Hezbollah.

Rashid Khalidi, of Columbia University, said that the political deadlock is a major hurdle to the camp's reconstruction.

"For the first time in Lebanese history, you have leading Lebanese politicians who've said that they really want to change the status of the Palestinians in Lebanon," he said. "However, the opposition and the government don't agree on anything. So that's not going to happen unless there is a political accord in Lebanon. Morever, that is linked to the larger problem of the sort of regional cold war between America on one side and Iran and Syria on the other. So you're double hostage. You're hostage to the Lebanese internal crisis and you're hostage to the regional confrontation."

For now, the rollout of the temporary housing units will continue until August. Most families are still holding out in other camps and improvised shelters, waiting for their call from UNRWA to move back. Nael expects the call by the end of this month.

Nael Abu Siam, more fortunate than most, has found a job as a relief worker.

His family has acquired and organized an array of pots, pans, toys and bedding in the 10 months they have lived in the schoolroom at Beddawi camp.

But the story he concocted to protect his children — that the classroom-home was temporary while their old home was being was being "refurbished" — has frayed significantly as the months have passed.

"I told them nothing changed. I am still your father and if you need anything, just ask your father," he said.

He has used the money he has earned as a relief worker to buy his kids the things they lost at Nahr al-Bared.

"We made a list of all the things they need from underwear to clothes, toys, everything they wanted. I put the list in my pocket and one by one I bought it all for them."

But teddy bears and clothes cannot keep the trouble of the Beddawi camp out. The reality of life at Beddawi makes Nael Abu Siam want to return to Nahr al-Bared even more urgently.

Nahr al-Bared is "not only houses, it's our history," he said. "We have to return to Nahr al-Bared because we have everything there: the memories; the births; the friends; our houses; everything, even my kids toys. That's it. Because of that we have to return."

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