Better late, than never. That could have been the motto for the June 23 donor conference in Vienna, in which a string of western nations pledged to pay $122 million for the reconstruction of the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el- Bared. A similar conference will be held in Riyadh next month, where Lebanon’s Arab brethren are expected to cough up another $225 million.
That leaves the cash-strapped Lebanese state still $103 million short of the $450 million needed to rebuild the camp, according to Palestinian relief organization UNRWA. Yet, it is a start, and it is about time for a start, as more than a year after fighting erupted, the majority of internally displaced still live in utter misery.
Situated 15 km north of Tripoli, Nahr el-Bared became a theater of war on May 20, 2007, when militants of Fatah el Islam, a Sunni fundamentalist group with suspected links to Al Qaeda, attacked a Lebanese army post killing 7 soldiers. In more than three months of fighting and intense shelling, some 222 militants were killed and 200 arrested, while a total of 169 Lebanese soldiers and 47 civilians died. An estimated 35,000 civilians were forced to flee their homes, as Lebanon’s second-largest Palestinian camp was left in ruins.
A recent survey by Lebanese NGO Naba’a sheds a light on the living conditions of the people displaced by the fighting. It appears that a total of some 6,200 families fled the conflict, some 5,000 of which took shelter in the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Beddawi, which more than doubled in size. The remaining 1,200 fled to friends and family in other parts of the country.
Today, nearly 3,000 families still live in Beddawi, while nearly 2,000 have returned to Nahr el-Bared. Of the people living in Beddawi, only 10% were able to buy a new home, while 25% rented a room and 5% lived with family. A stunning 60% of families lived in garages. Interestingly, the report distinguished within the category “garages” a sub-category called “bad garages,” which are the ones that not only suffer from intense heat, but also from “leakages, humidity and insect infestations.”
On a social level, the survey not surprisingly concluded that cramped living conditions and economic despair had lead to an increase in marital problems, divorce, school violence, (medical) drug abuse, and a significant decrease in the average marital age. It is thought that parents marry off their children at an earlier age, as several funds offer financial aid to the newly-wed.
Most of the some 1,200 families that returned to Nahr el- Bared were able to return home, while several hundreds live in prefab houses built by a variety of NGOs. However, despite all good intentions, the quality of the temporary shelters differs greatly and it does not take a genius to figure out that life is not exactly perfect for a family sharing one room under a zinc roof roasting in Lebanon’s summer sun.
One should know that Nahr el-Bared is really two camps. Established in 1948, the 1.9 square kilometer “old camp” was completely destroyed and remains sealed off by Lebanon’s armed forces. It is built on government land that was leased to UNRWA for a period of 100 years. The larger “new camp” was built on land acquired over the years by the Palestinians. It was left 60% destroyed.
According to government officials, the old camp remains off limits for its former inhabitants, as the area needs to be cleared from mines and unexploded ammunition. However, Palestinians wonder why on earth this has taken so long, while they share an outspoken fear that the government aims to only partially rebuild Nahr el-Bared to reclaim the land on which the old camp was built.
Speaking at the Vienna donor conference, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora stressed that the reconstruction could not and would not be partial. According to him, the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared not only offers some light at the end of tunnel for the thousands of displaced, but also serve as a means to re- establish the Palestinians’ confidence in the Lebanese state.
The importance of his last remark cannot be underestimated. Ever since the Civil War, there has been a great deal of mistrust between the Lebanese state and the Palestinians residing on its soil, while poverty and a sense of maltreatment form a fertile breeding ground for extremists.
It is a true disgrace that financial pledges to rebuild Nahr el-Bared took such a long time to materialize. But, as said, better late, than never. Now, to avoid another battle of Nahr el-Bared, or Ain el Hilweh for that matter, let us hope that the donating countries live up to their promises, sooner rather than later. Yet, seeing the discrepancy in promised and delivered aid for recent disasters around the world, that remains very much to be seen.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist.