NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon — Fadi El Tayaar’s home used to be in the middle of one of Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camps, Nahr al-Bared. It was a bustling center of commerce in Lebanon’s north, and he remembers how the main street was once crammed with Lebanese shoppers during holidays.
“The Lebanese were depending on the items and goods from here,” he said. “It was a market, the prices were cheap.”
Now Tayaar, who works for the United Nations, gazes out from the top of a recently reconstructed building overlooking the site of his old home. He points at a few trucks parked side by side.
“My home was near those trucks, over there, at the end of the hill,” he says, pointing to a position on what is now a massive pile of dirt, about four football fields wide.
Nearly all of what Fadi once knew in Nahr al-Bared was destroyed during fighting that kicked off two years ago this month between the Lebanese Army and a band of armed Islamic insurgents who took over the camp. The battle displaced 30,000 people, many of whom now live in U.N. constructed shelters both inside and outside the camp.
The fighting began on May 20, when Lebanese security forces raided an apartment containing members affiliated with an Islamist militant group called Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon’s northernmost city, Tripoli. The raid was in response to an alleged bank robbery by the group. Ten miles away in Nahr al-Bared, Members of Fatah al-Islam retaliated, ambushing Lebanese army checkpoints around the camp’s entrances. The attack left 27 Lebanese soldiers dead, many of them killed as they slept.
The Lebanese Army surrounded Nahr al-Bared and began shelling the camp, as Fatah al-Islam fought off attempts by the army to enter. Shells continued to pour into the camp for the next four months. In the end, 168 soldiers, 226 militants and 52 civilians died in the fighting. The camp was all but leveled.
Now, two years later, Nahr al-Bared’s reconstruction has yet to begin. The planning and preparation for what is intended to be a complete overhaul of the camp — which the U.S., as the largest single donor, is financing to the tune of $300 million — is being overseen by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA. The agency has completed the master plan for the camp’s reconstruction, but the plan has yet to be approved by the Lebanese government. A discovery of ancient ruins amid the modern rubble has also slowed the clearance of destroyed buildings and has required additional building permits.
About 14,000 Palestinian refugees have moved back. Some live in their old homes, but most reside in temporary shelters built by UNRWA. Many of the shelters lack hot water, and there’s no air-conditioning in what are basically modified cargo containers with bathrooms and simple kitchens.
“I have eight children and three rooms,” says Kafaya Ziad Othman, whose leathery skin makes her look older than her 31 years. “We are stacked on top of each other.”
Schools here are temporary, and are constructed out of corrugated metal, like the housing units. They are neat and clean, but overcrowded. At the Mt. Tabour School, 450 students attend in two shifts — one begins in the 7 a.m. until noon, then the second session lasts from noon until 5 p.m. The principal, Hatem Assad, says when the generator doesn’t work, which is the last two weeks, the classrooms become ovens in the midday sun. But he says his biggest concern is lack of reconstruction in the camp; it’s making him, and other residents, nervous.
“People say there will be no reconstruction,” Assad says. “They think that because the reconstruction hasn’t begun yet. Two years and no reconstruction. These people are living in hard conditions.”
For the last two years, Assad has lived with his family in another Palestinian camp a few miles away. His home in Nahr al-Bared wasn’t destroyed in the fighting, but he can’t go back to it because the Lebanese Army is still removing rubble and unexploded shells left over from the fighting.
Hardships here are numerous. Assad says the Lebanese Army’s cordon around the camp is too tight. He says he wants security, but that waiting in line for thirty minutes at a Lebanese Army checkpoint, where soldiers sometimes “humiliate” him and other Palestinians as they enter what was once their home, is too much.
“People feel victimized to some extent and neglected as well,” says Charlie Higgins, the UNRWA project director for Nahr al-Bared reconstruction. “People would like to be under a freer security arrangement so they can reintegrate with surrounding areas, which they had before, economically and socially. And I think real recovery is dependent on that.”
The reconstruction plan that Higgins is heading up consists of two parts — supporting the refugees as they wait for their homes to rebuilt, and the actual reconstruction of the camp. He says the camp reconstruction will be divided up into eight “packages,” which will be rebuilt one at a time. The U.S. government is the largest donor to the $300 million fund that will get the work started. But that’s only 17 percent of the total needed to rebuild the “old,” original part of the camp.
Higgins estimates the project will take three to four years. But he’s optimistic the money, and government approvals for the reconstruction, will come.
The plan is to rebuild the camp exactly as it was before, but with internal living space shrunk to make way wider streets and open spaces so light penetrates what was once a densely packed town. Fadi al Tayaar, the UN employee whose home was destroyed in the fighting, says he’s happy the camp will be rebuilt, but in some ways, he can never go home again.
“When I’m inside the camp I feel like I’m not in Nahr al-Bared, like my house is in another place, not here, because I feel this is not the same place I was in before,” he says. “But still to the day I see my house, and my neighborhood, in my dreams.”
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