LEBANON: Uneasy return
Last Saturday, I went up to northern Lebanon to finally enter the refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, the scene of an intense summer war between the Lebanese security forces and Fateh Al-Islam, a militant group with Al Qaeda ties.
It was quite a challenge to get in and report on what was happening there. For the past month, the Lebanese army has allowed the return of almost two thousand Palestinian families. Local and international humanitarian groups have also been granted permission to enter.
Except for a few journalists, however, we have been denied access to the camp for various unclear reasons.
I've called the army's information bureau many times and each time I was given excuses, like the camp was not safe yet or the Palestinians don't want the media to portray such a negative image of the camp. I unsuccessfully tried using official channels to get in by sending a formal fax to the army's information officer.
Meanwhile, I was hearing heart-rending stories about harsh living conditions in Nahr el-Bared from my Palestinian friends.
I felt nervous about the extent of destruction and chaos I was expecting to witness knowing, how fierce the months of battles were between the Lebanese army and Islamic militants.
After the end of the fighting, the international and even Lebanese media turned a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinians. I felt like it was my duty to pursue the story after reporting on the conflict for months to shine a light on the plight of the refugees. They were paying a heavy price exacted from the minutest details of their daily lives.
I decided to try accessing the camp as a volunteer with a charity. I asked a Palestinian friend to help me out and he managed to put my name on his list of volunteers.
As I walked into the camp I was struck by the violence of the scenery.
The destruction was so overwhelming. Images and noises from the bustling streets of what Nahr el-Bared once was floodied into my memory. I had come many years ago to Nahr el-Bared as a translator for European social workers. Right before the conflict, I also came several times to interview Palestinian officials and Islamist militants. I could not believe the annihilated town I was visiting was the same buzzing camp I once knew.
First, I helped distribute water bottles. But finally my journalistic instincts kicked in.
— Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photos: Relief agencies estimate that 70% of the buildings in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, once a bustling town of 40,000, have been destroyed. Credit: Raed Rafei