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LEBANON: Bittersweet homecoming for Palestinian residents of war-damaged camp

April 21, 2011 |  7:22 am

A tedious familiarity overcame Muhammad Aamer and his family as they were forced to leave the only home they knew following the 2007 conflict.

The war in Nahr el Bared brought to many of the Palestinian refugees a sense of loss and despair reminiscent of the 1948 Nakba. The keen desire of the residents for return was assuaged four years later, when the reconstruction of the first portion of the old camp was finalized.

IMG00568-20110419-1203“It was the most difficult time of our lives. It still is. We were abused and violated. We saw many wars but this one had completely damaged our camp and we weren’t even part of it,” said Aamer, 62, a member of the Popular Committee for Nahr el Bared.

“This day is a happy day,” he continued, “but it is tainted with sadness when we remember how we got here. We are back to zero. We are a people with nothing.”

The battle in 2007 was a gruesome, three-month face-off between the Lebanese Army and Fatah el Islam.

Pulling up their sleeves again with persistence and perseverance, hundreds of Palestinian refugees gathered in the camp to mark the return of several families to homes that were destroyed in the Naher el Bared conflict in 2007.

IMG00559-20110419-1154 UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, distributed keys and checks to 43 families who were moving back.

A cloud of dust and ambivalence hung over the congregation. Inside the buildings, joyous and appreciative cries could be heard alongside bitter and resentful wailing, as many residents were displeased with the reconstruction arrangements.

“They built my house without a kitchen. I have four daughters. How am I supposed to manage without a kitchen? Also, my brother Ziad, who has high blood pressure and various heart problems, was given a house on the fourth floor. I have written several complaints to UNRWA to no avail,” said Mahmoud Yousef Wehbeh.

Some even found that they were given keys to houses with plans that diverged greatly from the blueprints that had been signed. Despite the disappointment, most inhabitants were at least relieved to return to something they could call their own.

During the ceremony, Lebanese army and internal security personnel lurked watchfully in the background, contributing to a highly militarized atmosphere that has now become the signature of Nahr el Bared. The army checkpoints throughout the camp and the erection of a new police tower in the center put the security situation at the heart of most of the residents’ grievances.

“It’s not fair to be returning to a prison,” said Khalil Khader, a camp elder. “We want a safety zone, not a security zone, and safety is built with trust,” added Aamer.

IMG00579-20110419-1209The barricades and barbed wire that envelope the camp also discourage local Lebanese merchants and customers from developing trade relationships with their Palestinian counterparts. This has segregated the camp both economically and socially.

Combined with Lebanese laws that prohibit Palestinians from practicing most professions, these security measures have rendered “66% of Nahr el Bared residents unemployed,” said Aamer.

Palestinians officials say they understand and respect the need for the Lebanese to maintain stability, but that people in the camps also have humanitarian needs. 

According to UNRWA official Charlie Higgins, 83 families are supposed to be moving  to their new homes in the coming weeks. A lot of work remains to be done in the next few years when thousands of families are set to return to reconstructed apartments in the eight other packages, funding for which remains short to this day.

-- Roula Hajjar in Nahr el Bared Refugee Camp, Lebanon

Video: Hundreds of Palestinians celebrate their return to the Nahr El Bared camp in northern Lebanon on April 19, 2011. Credit: Roula Hajjar

Photos: From above, Palestinian woman dances in the center of the partially rebuilt camp in northern Lebanon on April 19, 2011; several Palestinian young men sing ceremoniously in front of their new houses; three Palestinian brothers excitedly and curiously inspect their new environment. Credit: Roula Hajjar