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From the Ruins of a Palestinian Camp, a Long Road to Reconstruction

The rebuilding of Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared in Lebanon is the largest single reconstruction project ever undertaken by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. A decade on and $200 million later, only half of the residents have been able to return.

Written by Virginie Le Borgne Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The Lebanese army exercises tight control over Nahr el-Bared. It is the only Palestinian camp with an Internal Security Forces police station inside, and factions are prohibited from openly carrying weapons.Virginie Le Borgne

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon – “I will only cut my hair on the day the camp is fully rebuilt,” Melad Salameh says of his home, the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon.

In the decade since the camp was destroyed during clashes between militants and the Lebanese army, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has spent more than $200 million reconstructing Nahr el-Bared. Yet half of the residents are still waiting to return.

With his imposing stature and lengthy curly hair, Salameh is hard to miss on the streets of the camp. Born in the camp after his family fled Palestine in 1967, he worked as a volunteer nurse before his current job as a field officer for the charity War Child Holland. Before the 2007 clashes, he ran a small NGO for children in the camp.

Following the clashes, Salameh was living in a cave in a part of the camp by the sea with some friends “and a few rats as guests,” he says with a sarcastic smile.

In January 2016, Salameh received a new apartment in the camp. On his way home every day, he passes the sit-in organized by local families outside UNRWA offices against the slow-moving reconstruction process.

Born in Nahr el-Bared, Melad Salameh has lived in a new apartment in the camp since January 2016. (Virginie Le Borgne)

Near the sit-in, 65-year-old Saleh Awad shelters under a tree from the scorching sun. “I came back to my house four years ago, but it is twice as narrow as it was before the war,” the former English teacher says. Behind him, garbage piles up on a patch of wasteland. “This camp is a place for rats, dogs, diseases and garbage,” Awad says.

Behind some bushes, an alley of insalubrious shacks emerges. Nasser has been living there for eight years with his 10 children who “sleep very close to each other every night” to fit in the small room which constitutes their home, he says.

‘Largest Reconstruction Project’

Located by the sea around 9 miles (15km) from Tripoli, Nahr el-Bared, “cold river” in Arabic, was founded in 1949 to shelter refugees after the creation of the state of Israel.

In May 2007, the Lebanese army started shelling the camp to oust Islamist fighters from the Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam. Within three months, the vast majority of the camp lay in ruins. Its entire population, around 30,000 people, sought refuge in surrounding Palestinian camps.

The following year, UNRWA estimated it would cost $345 million to rebuild the camp and take around three years. It was the largest individual reconstruction project ever undertaken by the U.N. agency.

Ten years later, about half the homes and several schools have been rebuilt. One major reason is a lack of funds. UNRWA, which received support from the E.U., U.S. and the Saudi Fund for Development among other donors, says it still needs around $105 million to complete the task.

Saleh Awad, a former English teacher, came back to his house four years ago but finds it “twice as narrow as it was before the war.” (Virginie Le Borgne)

Another factor is the complex and delicate relations between various groups involved in the reconstruction, including UNRWA, a committee of representatives from the camp and the different Palestinian political factions.

For example, a group of volunteer architects spent years making detailed maps of the destroyed homes and businesses in collaboration with the residents, but the effort was overtaken by power struggles between political factions in the camp.

“The main difficulty we faced while working there was the need to involve many and different stakeholders in operational decisions,” a representative of the Italian Cooperation, which provided assistance to the reconstruction project, wrote in an email.

Currently, around 1,000 people live in what were supposed to be only temporary shelters. (Virginie Le Borgne)

Amid the slow pace of reconstruction, frustrations have grown on both sides. Some residents of the camp refer to UNRWA employees as “thieves.” Meanwhile, some aid workers complain that it is difficult to meet the expectations of families in the camp.

“They are never satisfied and always complain about the fact they used to have a bigger house before the war,” said one UNRWA field worker, speaking on condition of anonymity.

More order, more control

The reconstructed sector of Nahr el-Bared does not look like most other Palestinian camps in Lebanon.

There are around half a million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are barred from at least 30 fields of work, such as medicine or engineering, or owning property. Many live in 12 official Palestinian refugee camps where UNRWA provides services.

Most of the camps are poverty-stricken and overcrowded. Some have seen violent clashes between rival militants and effectively become no-go zones for Lebanese security forces, like the turbulent Ain al-Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon.

By contrast, the Lebanese army exercises tight control over Nahr el-Bared. It is the only Palestinian camp with an Internal Security Forces police station inside, and factions are prohibited from openly carrying weapons. The camp used to be an economic hub in the region, but now most outsiders need a permit to enter.

Inside the camp, a wide avenue bisects a network of large streets lined with new buildings, interspersed with the ruins of homes yet to be rebuilt.

Ten years after its destruction, only half of the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared has been rebuilt. (Virginie Le Borgne)

All plans for the reconstruction of the camp have to be approved by the Lebanese government, which previously exerted little control over the area. Mouin Merheby, the minister for refugee affairs, told Refugees Deeply in an email: “It was the government’s decision to expand the sovereignty of the Lebanese state and provide safety for inhabitants of the camp.”

Yet residents fear some aspects of the reconstruction are more about controlling them than protecting them, for example by building wide streets or prohibiting street railings that might obstruct security vehicles.

“The problem is that the Lebanese state delegated the management of Nahr el-Bared camp to the Lebanese army,” says Ismael Sheikh Hassan, a community architect and volunteer in the Nahr el-Bared Reconstruction Commission for civil action and studies.

“In a way, the Lebanese government used this war against Fatah al-Islam as an opportunity to create a new model of Palestinian camp, under Lebanese sovereignty and control,” he said. “But this didn’t bring normality to the camp, as strict military control governs the everyday life of its population.”

Bittersweet Returns

A few miles away from Nahr el-Bared lies another Palestinian camp called Beddawi, where many fled during the 2007 clashes.

Mahmoud Najar, a former electricity worker, has been living there with his family while they wait for their house to be rebuilt.

“The day our house is ready, I will be so glad,” he says. Yet he doesn’t plan to return with his wife and five children. As a former member of Fatah, a secular Palestinian faction, he made a deal during the clashes to help Lebanese forces find the Islamist fighters in exchange for remaining in Beddawi camp without any trouble from authorities.

Even those who were able to return fear that the slow reconstruction of the camp has irreparably destroyed its social fabric, and that Palestinians’ lack of prospects in Lebanon are creating a new generation with little hope.

“When I came back here after the [2007] war, I was so glad,” says Fathi, a 61-year-old grocer. “At least for one month – then I realized the sweep of the change. The war destroyed our way of thinking. Now, it is every man for himself, and the future is even more black.”

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