The Sluggish Reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared

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The conflict between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam that raged from June to September 2007 destroyed a large chunk of this once-bustling camp and displaced nearly 30,000 Palestinian refugees. (Photo: AFP)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, August 27, 2012

Five years since its destruction, Nahr al-Bared, the first and largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, is still being reconstructed under the direction of UNRWA.

The conflict between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam that raged from June to September 2007 destroyed a large chunk of this once-bustling camp and displaced nearly 30,000 Palestinian refugees. Many sought shelter in the neighboring Baddawi camp 15 km away, while others were forced to find accommodation on their own. The majority of the camp’s residents stayed within the Akkar region, fearful of their inability to return to their ‘temporary homes’ but hopeful since the Lebanese military pledged to the camp’s residents that they would be home in a matter of days.

Today, much of Nahr al-Bared is still designated as a closed military zone, surrounded by checkpoints and barbed wire with the army using parts of the camp as a base. Movement is heavily restricted through a system of identity cards. Only a small number of the thousands of displaced families have been able to return to limited sections of the camp that were reconstructed last year.

Those fortunate enough to return have described their homecoming as “bitter sweet,” as complaints have surfaced regarding the newly constructed houses. From kitchen-less apartments to sinks absurdly built directly on top of toilets, the various architectural and constructional blunders are astonishing given the protracted reconstruction efforts.

Understanding why the reconstruction process is taking so long, as well as why a number of critical technical mistakes were made, not only sheds light on the estrangement and uneasiness experienced by the camp’s residents but also exposes inherent problems within UNRWA and its relationship with those it seeks to help.

UNRWA: From Relief to Reconstruction

Established in 1949, UNRWA’s “temporary” mandate was to provide aid and developmental assistance to the nearly 700,000 Palestinians who were forced off their lands by Zionist forces. As the decades passed by and as refugees were still denied the right to return to their homes in Palestine, the relief agency gradually transformed into a parallel government responsible for Palestinian affairs within the numerous camps that pepper neighboring Arab countries.

UNRWA plays a crucial role in sustaining Palestinian refugees as they seek to improve their dismal situation, particularly since it is the only international body responsible for them. At the same time, the organization occupies a precarious position, attempting to balance the needs and represent the sentiments of Palestinian refugees with the pressures applied by donors, refugee-hosting states, international powers, and the organization’s own liberal humanitarian outlook, which can sometimes be at odds with Palestinian demands for justice.

UNRWA’s foray into the reconstruction of Palestinian refugee camps is a relatively recent and arguably ambitious undertaking for the sixty year old organization. It first began with the rehabilitation and urban redesign of the Neirab refugee camp in Syria in 2001.

But it was the reconstruction of Jenin after its destruction by Israel in April 2002, the largest and most significant humanitarian intervention during the Second Intifada, in which UNRWA really embraced its new expansive role.

In her critical analysis of Jenin’s reconstruction published in the winter 2012 issue of the Journal of Palestinian Studies, Linda Tabar, a PhD scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, argued that UNRWA’s work in Jenin treated the Palestinians as apolitical subjects, actively ignoring the concerns and struggles faced by the Jenin community under Israeli occupation and violence under the mantra of modernization.

From the onset, conflicts arose between UNRWA and the Jenin emergency committee (EC), a group composed of various community leaders and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council formed to deal with the devastation.

According to Tabar, the EC was chiefly concerned that any structural changes would negatively impact the status of the camp, as well as facilitate Israeli occupation. UNRWA’s team, on the other hand, argued from a technical standpoint that it was impossible to replicate the camp’s previous dense structure. One of the major points of contention was the proposal by UNRWA to expand and widen Jenin’s road network, which the EC felt would make it easier for Israeli forces to control the camp. The architects and other members of UNRWA seemed unable, or unwilling, to understand such concerns, often dismissing them as “too political.”

Eventually the deadlock was broken due to pressures from a number of families who were desperate to return to their homes as soon as possible. Nevertheless, even after Jenin’s reconstruction was completed in late 2005, the new road systems continued to be a source of resentment as it indeed allowed Israeli forces to penetrate and move with greater ease throughout the camp thereby quelling what was once a hub of resistance.

“UNRWA’s bureaucratic operation rehoused some four thousand displaced refugees, but it did so by re-embedding this vulnerable population in the same modes of Israel colonial violence that it had sought to address,” Tabar observed in her analysis. “Ultimately, the UN-imposed spatial order facilitated the colonial pacification of the camp. In other words, UNRWA’s conceptual lens, with its inability to see Palestinian refugees as situated actors endowed with overlapping rights, meant that while the humanitarian operation mitigated the displacement caused by Israel’s invasion of the camp, it reinforced the colonial regime and its modes of violence and control.”

Five Years and Counting

The parallels between Jenin and Nahr al-Bared are striking; the main difference lies in the size and scope of the undertaking. While Jenin’s reconstruction project involved only 320 units that took three years to be completed, Nahr al-Bared’s ongoing reconstruction involves around 5,500 units. Like Jenin, the problems plaguing the Nahr al-Bared reconstruction process have been exasperated by the diverging visions of UNRWA and camp residents. Further complicating things is the involvement of the Lebanese government and army, as well as internal disputes that erupted within the departments handling the reconstruction efforts.

Much like in Jenin, a committee representing camp residents – the Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission for Civil Action and Studies (NBRC) represented by Palestinian activist Ismail Sheikh Hassan – was formed immediately after the end of hostilities between the Lebanese military and Fatah al-Islam in September 2007. The first thing the commission did was to plan the reconstruction of the camp.

Soon after, UNRWA became involved, represented by Muna Budeiri, who previously headed the design team for Jenin, and a memorandum of understanding was signed in September 2007. UNRWA’s North Management Unit (NMU) agreed to handle all the design and infrastructural works for the reconstruction, while NBRC granted access to their databases and was promised involvement throughout the decision-making process, including veto rights. A preliminary master plan was jointly drafted nine months later.

Subsequently, the Lebanese government and military called for a meeting concerning the reconstruction, initially refusing to invite members of the NBRC. After months of negotiations, the Lebanese government and military relented and a meeting with UNRWA, the NBCR, and the Lebanese parties took place.

The Lebanese side set a number of conditions for the new camp which had to be agreed upon before commencing reconstruction: no building could surpass four floors; roads would be widened to 4.5 meters, limiting the number and sizes of balconies, among other restrictions. These conditions not only reduced the size of land plots, and thus, the buildings and houses within, but they were also a means for the Lebanese military to exercise physical control over the camp. The widening of road systems, particularly, was a difficult pill to swallow for the residents of Nahr al-Bared, because it rendered the camp vulnerable to military incursions. Echoing what had transpired in Jenin, the new road system will most likely radically alter the culture and nature of Nahr al-Bared.

The discovery of an ancient city beneath the destroyed camp in the summer of 2009 coupled with a shortage of funds caused further delays. To complete the reconstruction, UNRWA needs more than $300 million. So far, almost a third of that amount has been raised.

Ultimately, internal conflicts within UNRWA, whether between members of the Design and Planning Sub-Unit [DPSU] of UNRWA’s NMU or disputes with the residents that have compounded the delays.

UNRWA’s Internal Conflicts

Lebanese architect Hisham Ashkar joined the DPSU in May 2008. Ashkar’s job was first to meet with the residents and discuss how they wanted their homes and blocks to look like, prior to the design stage. But according to Ashkar, many of the architects at DPSU had already drawn up their own designs and attempted to convince the residents rather than implementing a participatory approach.

“Most other architects were not doing these steps. They designed things by themselves and then worked to convince the residents. Ismail [Sheikh Hassan] and other senior UNRWA members came several times and said that they forget what the residents wanted and [therefore] they said we will do it in a different way. [In many cases] the houses are totally different from what the residents wanted or what we agreed with the residents,” he told Al-Akhbar in a telephone conversation.

“They say it was a participatory approach, but it wasn’t. They say that they did several workshops with the residents, but Ismail and others who did these workshops never gave us feedback. Nothing of what the residents wanted was taken into account.”

Ashkar also alleged that the UN agency actively sought architects of a lower caliber in order to maintain control over the design.

“Most of the architects are incompetent, except for one or two. When I had my interview, they told me explicitly that I had too much experience and they didn’t know if they could hire me,” he said. “I found out some time later, they didn’t want experienced architects because they didn’t want anyone to block their work,” Ashkar alleged.

“The architects designed [the camp] in a very bad way. When I raised reservations and said we should check and amend the mistakes before sending the plan to the contractors, they objected and said they would do it later. The engineers did not correct any mistakes; they just randomly built columns and structures,” he stated.

Ashkar added that he compiled a report with maps outlining the various mistakes he found, but after handing it in he was met with no response.

The mistakes he found included two buildings designed as one, missing details such as access to shops and houses, designs that placed apartment buildings lower than the street level, non-functioning bathrooms or missing basic infrastructure, doors opening into the wrong side of the room, among many others.

Askhar was sacked from UNRWA in May 2009. According to the letter sent to him, he was fired over an “attitude problem” and his refusal to implement UNRWA’s architectural methodology. To date, Ashkar is still awaiting a response from UNRWA to the appeal he filed protesting his dismissal. UNRWA is immune to Lebanese labor laws and any dispute must be settled through the organization’s structure, a fact he was unaware of during his conflict with the organization.

“My attitude was to object to what they were doing,” he chuckled. “There was no official methodology. It was very improvised and also, those in charge didn’t have prior experience. Ismail [had] never worked in his life; Aditya Kumar [the supervisor of DPSU at the time] didn’t have experience at all. Only Muna Budeiri, who comes for two days a year, had experience but she is more of a public relations person.”

“UNRWA is very hierarchical, like an army; you have to do things and object later. It is very bureaucratic. There is no room to debate or appeal,” he opined.

Another architect who worked on the project, Nada Sabbagh, echoed many of Ashkar’s sentiments. She decided to leave UNRWA in November 2010 because of the problems that surfaced during the project.

“When we had a small problem or someone was shouting or someone was pushing the interests of a certain party, sometimes Sheikh Hassan would get involved in the issue as if he was the architect representing the committee of Nahr al-Bared. He was supposed to defend the rights of the refugees but his involvement was two-faced. He would use the rules at times and ignore them at others,” she claimed. “Humanitarianism was not part of the process.”

Although conceding that Ashkar may have been rigid in his ethical standpoint, Sabbagh unequivocally disagreed with the reasons behind Ashkar’s termination. Rather, she singled out Ismail Sheikh Hassan and Aditya Kumar as the main obstacles to the process.

It seemed that Kumar was disconnected from the environment and lacked the experience needed to run a project of this size. According to Sabbagh, he was more concerned with conducting “social experiments” within the office instead of pushing forward and managing the project in a positive, efficient manner.

Kumar was subsequently dismissed from his position as supervisor. He is currently being investigated over his conduct during the project.

In regards to the various mistakes in the design and construction, Sabbagh explained that she, together with Ashkar, attempted to correct and standardize the designs, but their attempts went unheeded.

A few months after Ashkar’s sacking, Sabbagh was placed as an auditor to oversee the designs. She still found a large number of mistakes – unfortunately, most were in the first package, which was already being constructed.

“Entrances to houses were around 90 cm wide, which means that people with wheelchairs couldn’t go through. There are houses that to enter, you have to go through your neighbor’s house. There are rooms that are not ventilated and there are rooms that are less than two-by-two meters. There are toilets that a person could not enter and sinks that are built on top of toilets. I have never seen this before,” she noted.

“We felt corruption within the UN at many levels – not only in the mismanagement, but also in terms of salaries and in terms of the relations and treatment. We do not want to harm UNRWA. I know deep inside that some of the people working over there really do care about the refugees, but unfortunately some of them care only for their salaries. We want to help people in a proper way, and let UNRWA know its problems and weaknesses,” she concluded.

Hoda Samra, a Public Information Officer for UNRWA in Lebanon, responded to Al-Akhbar by email in regards to the claims made above.

She wrote, “No-one is happy about the time it is taking to rebuild Nahr al-Bared camp. The project has faced numerous obstacles and challenges since its conception. While unfortunate and frustrating, it cannot be considered to be totally surprising. It is an extremely complex and challenging project affected by a variety of factors including demining, rubble removal, the need for expropriation of lands, proper conservation of archaeological findings, a detailed and painstaking participatory design process, significant fundraising, modifications being required for security-related reasons, access restrictions to list only a few. There are also many stakeholders.”

“UNRWA has recently produced a new plan for the project with the acceleration of the reconstruction activities as the main objective, but funding continues to be a major impediment. Without additional funds, the accelerated process will be placed on hold few months from now. If all funds are available, all families would be able to return to their constructed units by 2015.”

Samra assured that UNRWA had begun reviewing and amending the other packages awaiting construction and had formed a complaints committee composed of representatives of the community, UNRWA, and a Popular Committee to review each case involving constructional mistakes and other complaints.

In terms of Ashkar’s on-going case against his termination, Samra explained that “UNRWA does not discuss staff issues in public” and that “the Agency takes seriously any claim of corruption.”

“It is in our interest that the services we provide are offered in a transparent and fair manner. We would be pleased to consider any claim which contains credible information and enough evidence. We will act on it and be transparent throughout the whole process,” she wrote.

“Lots of lessons [have been] learned in terms of delivery of relief assistance to displaced refugees and providing temporary sheltering through to construction have been accumulated. We have not yet perfected the process but there is no doubt that lots of alternatives were tested and the advantages and dis-advantages of each are now much clearer to UNRWA. We do hope that the reconstruction of NBC is the last that UNRWA has to undertake,” she added.


UNRWA sounds like an unmitigated f**k-up from start to finish, where every BS imaginable happens daily and nobody is ever responsible.

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