return to nahr al bared

It seems that everything has changed and nothing has changed in Nahr al Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon. I went a few days ago, in theory to do some clean up work, as well as to survey the damage. The rain was so intense and heavy that no one was really doing anything and so instead friends of mine who are from the camp walked around the camp with us and we talked to some people about the situation. The streets have turned to mud from the heavy bombing and from the rain. There are a number of streets there that were impossible to walk on at all because the water was knee-deep. We had bought plastic rain boots in Baddawi refugee camp first, which enabled us to walk through some streets that we could barely make it through as it was given the depths of the water and the way the mud wanted to pull our feet into the earth.
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The devastation was unbelievable. I’ve never see anything like it. Not even from destruction in Palestine, though friends tell me it resembles destruction in Ghaza. (My friend Josie is now in Ghaza and to read what’s going on there visit her blog.) We could not go to the areas where the devastation was the worst. That is in what is called the “old camp.” The Lebanese army, which legally under the 1969 Cairo Agreement, is not allowed to enter the camp at all, is stationed at various points inside the camp where they have placed barbed wire in order to keep people from entering that half of the camp. But friends took me to the tops of key buildings from where I could see into the camp and see how severe the damage is. It seems clear that not one building remains standing there. In the “new camp” this is true to a certain extent, but some buildings are salvageable and we saw people doing some repairs on their homes such as spreading cement over areas where there was heavy shelling so as to make their buildings into something that looks like swiss cheese. But the good news is that the people from Nahr al Bared are resilient and some have already opened their shops and they have begun to rebuild their lives. But it is challenging because people have so much rebuilding work to do on their homes that there is not necessarily any time to work yet.
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Thus far 8,000 people have returned or 1,200 families. Some of them are in their homes and some are in these cement buildings with zinc roofs that UNRWA set up. Initially these new homes were placed right on the mud, but the families put them on a cement foundation because they know that they may be fated to stay there for a while. Really, this is the theme of everything I heard and saw: Palestinians from Nahr al Bared are doing it for themselves. No one is really of use, no one is listening to them. So they are taking things into their own hands in order to rebuild their homes and their lives. In other words, some things just don’t change: Palestinians have very little voice unless they take control over the situation.
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In nearby Baddawi refugee camp people are still living in the UNRWA schools and there is a school near Nahr al Bared where there have been classes in three shifts. People have had very little schooling thus far–I was told only one month of classes–in part because people have been striking to protest the lack of opportunities to move out of the schools and to be allowed to return to their homes. They are going to have to go straight through the summer in order to continue their studies and to make up for time. Class sizes are huge–65 students per class. Normally there are 45 students per class. The learning process is completely disrupted.
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I spoke with a number of people. One of the good signs in the camp is that some people have opened up small shops selling various household products and some felafel stands too. Some money is coming in to help people with their rebuilding process, but not nearly enough. Individuals in the West Bank–unaffiliated with any particular political party–raised $6 million dollars and it was given to the PLO who distributed $1,000 per family last week. Still, most people do not have the luxury of working as they are needing to rebuild their homes as no one is doing it for them. One man who had a felafel stand told us that he had been one of the last to leave the camp. He told us that after the first twenty days of fighting there were no more Fatah al Islam fighters in the camp and that all of the fighting was coming from the outside–from the Lebanese army–only. He stopped seeing any resistance after that point. There is a theory I heard repeated several times during my three visits to the camp that the army used Fatah al Islam as a ruse to attack the camp in order to take over the camp, put up army checkpoints, and give Palestinians citizenship because of Fouad Siniora’s new warm relationship with George Bush. The idea being that such a change–of getting rid of the refugee camps and making Palestinians Lebanese citizens–would help the Zionist state complete its goal of a permanent ethnic cleansing and erasing the right of return. For Palestinians in the camps here this is a plot that they resist. While such a behind-closed-doors plan, if it is what is really being planned, is deeply problematic for once again Palestinians have no seat at the table, I am not against granting Palestinians in Lebanon citizenship. I think that people need to see citizenship and right of return as connected and not irreconcilable. If Palestinians here had citizenship and with it all the rights of having a passport, a right to work, and a right to education, then Palestinians would be able to plan for and build a better future to access their right of return to Palestine.
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But a right of return seems so far from reality right now. All the talk is merely of a right to return to Nahr al Bared. I’m haunted by images of the building of these camps in the early 1950s when I entered the homes of people living in the UNRWA build pre-fabricated houses in Nahr al Bared. The houses–particularly the interior–resemble the small concrete houses that people lived in back then. And I recall the words I heard over and over again last summer that this war was a second or a third nakba or catastrophe of 1948. One family we visited there had been in Shatila refugee camp last summer. The mother of the family has breast cancer and one of our extraordinary volunteers with the Nahr al Bared Relief Campaign arranged for her to go to a hospital in Beirut to receive chemotherapy treatment. We went to her family’s new home in one of these UNRWA houses.
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In contrast you could see how different this refugee camp was/is than any other I’ve seen. You could see that there were really beautiful villas interspersed among the more typical block concrete buildings in other refugee camps. There are also a number of green areas with beautiful gardens, trees, and flowers, which are among the ruins now. Apparently this particular camp had a higher per capita income than other refugee camps in the region, though none of that matters now. Nahr el Bared shop owners who used to allow Lebanese people from the area to purchase items on credit cannot get people to pay up and so much of the money, jewelry, and other valuables were looted from people’s homes by the Lebanese army. Of course all this is just in the “new camp.” I have no idea what has transpired in the “old camp,” though supposedly 15 families at a time are going to be allowed inside for short periods of time to see if there is anything that is salvageable from their homes. However, the army is forcing the families to sign a paper that will ask them to state that nothing was stolen by the army and that they are not responsible. This is yet another reason for tension, and justifiably so.
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Other rumors from the army are making things difficult for the people. One such rumor is that they are going to take 25% of the old camp and turn it into a military base, which will prevent people from accessing that part of the camp and from accessing the sea, which could harm those livelihoods dependent upon fishing. Rumors from the Lebanese government are that they will take over the camp and widen the roads to allow for easy passage of army tanks throughout the camp. There is a fear that there are plans to force Palestinians to leave the camp–especially those originally from the old camp, which takes us back to the beginning of the conflict because it makes people think that the conflict was caused by this goal not by some conflict with Fatah al Islam. We heard this narrative repeated multiple times by various people. Fortunately people are determined that the massacre by the Lebanese Forces and destruction of the Tell al Za’atar refugee camp in the 1970s will not be repeated and that this camp will be rebuilt. I witnessed that in the attitudes of people all around us–they returned in spite of the horrendous conditions and are living without walls, without windows, without doors in bone-chilling temperatures.
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People are exposed–literally in terms of the elements and the ways in the remaining structure of their homes gives them little privacy with respect to neighbors or the Lebanese army. The army’s presence in the camp is disturbing on a number of levels. They are not just stationed along the barbed wire separating the new and old camp. They are hidden among the ruined buildings watching your every move–especially if you have a camera. The mukhabarat is also present in the camp. The army controls far too much in the camp. They control the movement of people who enter and exit the camp including ambulances. The checkpoint at the entrance to the camp is only open from 8 am until 8 pm so if there is an emergency and an ambulance needs to get in or get out at other times there is a delay. I had no problem entering and exiting on two of the three days I spent in the camp, but on Saturday the army made me get out of the car, go into a room where a female soldier searched me (my body and my purse) and then the army said I could not enter. I called my friend who came to the entrance of the camp and spoke to the army who told me that I could enter, but only for an hour (this after waiting in the checkpoint line for over an hour). We went in and my friend met with the mukhabarat for that entire hour to make sure that this problem would not happen again. But I told the mukhabarat that the real problem is the army’s presence at all, which is illegal under the 1969 Cairo Agreement which in theory gives Palestinians autonomy in the camps in Lebanon.
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There is still so much work that needs to be done, especially with respect to removing the army from the camp entirely, rebuilding the camp, and shifting the focus from thinking about returning to Nahr el Bared to returning to Palestine. Along with the houses that are being rebuilt, what we really need to rebuild is resistance.
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