Nahr al-Bared: Five Years Later

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Palestinian children collect stones to be thrown at their friends as they play a "war" game in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared on the outskirts of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Abdel Kafi al-Samad

Published Sunday, May 20, 2012

Nahr al-Bared was the first official Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. It was then completely destroyed by the Lebanese army during clashes with Fatah al-Islam in 2007. Although the government designated the newly built camp as a military zone, residents insist that their return is a symbolic step towards return to Palestine.

“Departure is temporary, return is certain and reconstruction is inevitable,” promised then prime minister Fouad Siniora to calm the fears of the Palestinians displaced from Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.

Experience has taught the Palestinians that no demolished camp will ever be rebuilt or its people ever be able to return. Remember Tal al-Zaatar and Jisr al-Basha camps.

On the fifth anniversary of the displacement of the residents of Nahr el-Bared from their camp, they wander aimlessly in a scene instantly comparable to their exodus from their motherland, whether during the Nakba in 1948 or following the Naksa in 1967.

The camp was the first official Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, with construction beginning in 1949. Five years ago, more than 25,000 people out of the 30,000 residents were displaced from the camp.

They were driven to the neighboring Baddawi camp, only 15 km away. It became one of the most densely populated residential areas in the world, with more than 40,000 people living in one square kilometer.

With the end of fighting in Nahr al-Bared and the elimination of Fatah al-Islam, the people of the camp mobilized daily to pressure UNRWA and the Lebanese government to allow them to return, despite the enormous destruction.

The movement for their return had two dimensions. The first was because Palestinians believed that returning to their camp was a symbolic first move on their way back to Palestine.

The second was represented by the Lebanese government, who maintained that they did not have the power to deal with the ramifications of the people of the camp remaining homeless. Hundreds of families displaced from the camps were now living wretchedly in squalid garages.

They also could not deal with the consequences of a decision to build a new camp in another area. So it was agreed that the residents would be allowed to return, but under certain conditions.

The first was that the postwar Nahr al-Bared refugee camp would not be the same as it was before. The government’s decision to turn the area into a military zone imposed unfamiliar security conditions on the residents in terms of their entering and leaving the camp.

It crushed the dreams of merchants who wanted to revive the camp’s market and reinstate it as the primary shopping center for the neighboring areas.

The second condition was that reconstructing the camp would involve changing its architecture. There would be no randomly placed building and no narrow alleyways where the sun can’t reach.

The construction would be planned according to urban planning standards for popular residential areas. Palestinians in the camps had never encountered such regulations in the past.

Ultimately, under pressure and insistence from the residents, waves of them started returning to the new section of the camp. There, they tried to rehabilitate it themselves with what little means they had.

The old section of the camp, the main one, has been the subject of a series of debates that have delayed construction. Excuses vary from archeological findings in the camp to a lack of financial resources.

In June 2008, a conference in Vienna gave the signal for construction to begin. However, the money collected was only enough to build up about a third of the camp.

This put UNRWA, the agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, under serious scrutiny over its intentions. It raised many questions about the future of the agency and whether it is able to fulfill its duties. Questions also arose about the fate of the camp, its people, and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in general.

Residents are severely frustrated over the drawn out construction process and the inability to guarantee that more of a third of them will be able to return. But they do believe that their gradual return will go a certain way to relieve the suffering caused by their displacement. It could also secure them relative stability until they return to Palestine.

This is a view shared by everyone in Nahr al-Bared as well as all other camps. From a political perspective, Palestinian refugees see their camps as a symbol of their displacement from their land, their collective memory and their cause. They are determined to keep this alive in the consciences of successive generations awaiting return.

Ever since their exodus, which took place in waves beginning some 64 years ago, Palestinians have learned many lessons. Two of them were crucial.

The first was to keep out of the maze of Lebanese politics as much as possible, because they have been burned several times. They now refuse to be drawn in or be used as tools to settle internal scores in Lebanon.

The battle between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam which led to the destruction of the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp taught them the other lesson.

Only their return to Palestine will safeguard their existence and their rights as human beings, for “a prophet has no dignity except in his homeland,” particularly if he is an Arab.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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