Displaced Palestinians say they are housed in squalor, living in a camp destroyed 18 months ago with no end to their misery.
Refugees now view Lebanon as the enemy
NAHR AL BARED, LEBANON // In a child's picture pinned on a damp wall at the Palestinian Children and Youth Institute, an aeroplane emblazoned with the Lebanese cedar drops bombs on a house covered by a Palestinian flag. Melad Salameh, the institute's director, explains that the ragged children running around him no longer see Israel as the enemy. A generation is growing up who see their suffering stemming from Lebanese authorities.
This is the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al Bared, 18 months on from a conflict between the Lebanese army and Fatah al Islam militants that destroyed the heart of the camp. Now what remains is a hotchpotch of ruined buildings and prefabricated houses, into which displaced families have crowded and live in squalor and, increasingly, anger. And all under the watch of the Lebanese army, which has maintained a presence at the camp since the fighting.
"We are living in a prison," said Saleh Awwad, a 60-year-old resident, explaining that, since 2007, he has needed a permit to come and go from the camp. His neighbour, Soraya Sabri Moussa, 60, added that her sister had been living in the nearby Beddawi camp since 2007, and was stopped by Lebanese soldiers at checkpoints when she tried to visit Nahr al Bared. Both the camp and its surrounding area - or the "new camp" as it is known - have now been declared military zones. Since a treaty signed in 1969, the government of Lebanon has allowed Palestinian forces to control security within the camps, but after the 2007 conflict, the Lebanese army assumed control of Nahr al Bared and its surrounding area.
Security is now tight and every Palestinian not resident full-time in Nahr al Bared needs to apply monthly for a permit to enter the camp. After the conflict, the 5,500 families living in the camp - approximately 27,000 people - were made homeless, of whom 3,280 families have moved back to the new camp's tumbledown buildings. The remainder are crammed into nearby Beddawi camp or are struggling to live elsewhere in Lebanon.
"Some families are split," said Yasser Daoud, of Nabaa NGO, which works in the camp. "Half are in Nahr al Bared, and half not," he said, stressing that people sometimes had to apply for permits and submit to searches to see their own family in a place where they used to live. "It is like Israel," said Bassam Jamil Hubeichi from the Palestinian Human Rights' Group. "You need permission to get into your house - permission from the [Lebanese] army. They say that we are brothers and we are refugees, so why do they treat us like terrorists?"
Charles Higgins, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the north of Lebanon, said the presence of the army and internal security forces, who now work together in Nahr al Bared, was holding up recovery efforts. Moreover, an idea now being put forward by politicians to use the reconstruction of Nahr al Bared as a model for the rest of the country's camps - meaning the presence of Lebanese security forces in all the camps - would be highly unpopular with Palestinians, Mr Higgins said.
"If the plan is to work it needs to be accepted by the people and that's not happened," he said. There has been no consultation with Palestinians so far and "the future isn't promising anything different yet". Nahr al Bared is one of Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps, and was home to 5,500 families before it became the focus of fighting in 2007 between the Lebanese army and the extremist group Fatah al Islam, based in the camp. As tens of thousands of Palestinians fled the violence, aerial bombardment reduced the original camp to rubble, also destroying many of the buildings on the outskirts where the camp had overspilled its boundaries. Large areas were left riddled with unexploded ordnance.
The displaced people took shelter in the homes of fellow refugees in nearby Beddawi camp, which is much smaller, and on the fringes of Nahr al Bared, in houses, garages and in temporary shelters provided by UNRWA. Ms Moussa, from Nahr al Bared, now shares a one-room home with her sister after losing her house and her clothes shop in the violence. "It is so crowded and difficult," she said. "We are visitors here in Lebanon, but it's our human rights to go back" to a rebuilt version of the camp.
While much of the rubble has been cleared and many unexploded bombs have been removed in the 18 months since the end of the fighting, there has been little sign of reconstruction in Nahr al Bared. Frustration at squalid living conditions and lack of progress has grown - along with unemployment, truancy and resentment toward the government - and there were a number of protests over the summer. "We have lost hope in rebuilding the town," said Aziza Wehbe, a 42-year-old mother of 10 who struggles to feed her children, even with UNRWA help.
Although there are few weapons in the camp, political factions express fury and are gathering support, particularly among young people. There is a feeling that Lebanon has replaced Israel as the enemy, something expressed in graffiti linking 2007 with 1948; people call the 2007 war as the second "Nakba", or "catastrophe", as the events surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948 are commonly known.
Lina Makdeshi of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committees said she was concerned by the growing anger among Palestinians. "For someone living in a temporary shelter the conditions are not adequate and they feel their lives have been put on hold," she said. Epic political wranglings, including a five-month post-election fight to form a cabinet, have played a large part in delaying reconstruction efforts.
In August, for example, the prominent opposition MP, Michel Aoun, succeeded in halting the concreting of the ground in Nahr al Bared on the pretext that Roman ruins found in the area had to be investigated first. Work was suspended for 60 days, only resuming this month. It is widely believed Mr Aoun was merely using the site's history as a political tool, invoking Lebanon's heritage in order to garner public support as he fought for greater cabinet representation for his allies.
Currently, a master plan for Nahr al Bared still awaits government approval, as officials and experts debate how to rebuild a place that over decades had become an overpopulated warren of unplanned building. Fitting tens of thousands of people back into such a small space means that some building regulations have to be disregarded, and all plans have to be approved by the army, who stipulate, for instance, that basements or partial basements were a security risk as they could provide hiding places for insurgents.
The best-case scenario is that 423 families displaced by the violence will be moved into the first of eight new apartment blocks in the camp in the first quarter of 2011. But financing is also a problem, with the current UN funds available only enough to pay for two and a half of the eight sectors due to be rebuilt. UNRWA officials are currently trying to raise more money and are regularly taking potential donors on tours of Nahr al Bared.
Meanwhile, social problems in the camp fester. The resultant trauma is clear among children, said Mr Salameh, the director of the children's institute, from bed wetting, to difficulty in learning to a tendency to fight or even - he pointed out one little boy dressed in camouflage - to set fire to things. Mrs Wehbe, the mother of 10, is worried for the younger generations. "The most important psychological effect on our children is that they'll become children who attack each other."