Lebanon + 1 more

Lebanese refugees wait for their due

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Now Lebanon - Once dubbed the most prosperous Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Nahr al-Bared is today a barren landscape, with mounds of rubble sitting where sprawling neighborhoods used to thrive. Nearly three years after the bloody 15-week battle that took place in the camp between the Fatah al-Islam terrorist group and the Lebanese army, many of its former residents - both Palestinian and Lebanese - are still homeless.

The conflict, which ended with the army's victory in September 2007, left more than 30,000 Palestinians and 250 Lebanese homeless. The Lebanese who lived in the camp, most of them poor or internal refugees of the civil war, feel they have been marginalized and are not receiving as much attention - and aid - as the camp's Palestinian residents.

Some twenty Lebanese men and women gathered recently in the small living room of Khodr Akl's home, sharing their stories of dispossession and loss. They all lived in Nahr al-Bared for decades, some of them on land they inherited from their parents. Some were forced to move after the war, while others, like Ahmad Akl, live in decrepit buildings on the camp's grounds.

"I left the camp three days after the beginning of the war between Fatah al-Islam and the army," said Akl, a Lebanese former resident of Nahr al-Bared. "I had just finished building my house, which took five years to complete. The house is today partly destroyed and unsafe to enter."

Most of the families gathered at Akl's house said they survive on a few dollars a day. "We were given 2 million LL ($1,333) in aid from Saudi Arabia [in 2007], which was later followed by a grant from Prime Minister Saad Hariri," said Khodr Akl, 50, who lost the truck he used for work during the conflict. "But many irregularities have come up in the distribution of relief aid," he said, "and the UN Higher Relief Commission has been noticeably absent from the camp."

Fadi Ashrafi, another Lebanese left homeless after the camp war, points out that some religious figures raised money for the residents, although none has yet been distributed.

Some of the lists of beneficiaries initially established by various NGOs and aid organizations featured the names of people living outside the camp who were not entitled to the aid. In addition, some 23 to 25 names were excluded from the lists of beneficiaries established by the Hariri Foundation and by the UN Development Project, according to Khodr Akl, who added that "Sheikh Saad [Hariri] had sent the donations to Tripoli, which were later diverted."

Hajj Abdel Hamid Assad Korhani, 70, owned 62 greenhouses and a cow farm that were all destroyed during the conflict. "The only grant I ever received was the one that was distributed by Saudi Arabia in the wake of the war," he told NOW.

Ruba Arja al-Hachem is the manager of early relief and development aid for the Nahr al-Bared municipality for the UNDP in North Lebanon. She explains that the focus of the project is providing Lebanese residents of the camp the recovery of their livelihood if they owned a business inside the enclave before the 2007 war. "To be eligible for the aid, Lebanese residents have to conform to certain criteria: namely the ownership of a viable business that falls within our budget constraints. People who previously owned large businesses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars can't be expected to be reimbursed in the same way," she said.

Many of the Lebanese gathered in Akl's living room complain that they were rejected for UNDP aid to business owners, others that they are confused by the process. "I submitted a demand for a concrete mixer, which was rejected, then suddenly accepted at a later stage," said Khodr Assaad, who received $3,500 from the UNDP.

Adnan Ashrafi said he was given a generator by the UNDP. "The only thing that I thought was strange was that it was priced at $350, but I had to sign an $850 reception bill," he said.

Hajj Korhani feels marginalized by the UNDP's relief efforts, as the organization employs many Palestinians who "tend naturally to favor other Palestinians," he said.

Hachem, however, said that the UNDP is not directly doing the ground work inside the camp and has outsourced this activity to Première Urgence, a French NGO with a staff made up of French, Lebanese and Palestinians.

"Our main goal was to complement the work that the UN Relief and Works Agency is doing for Palestinians on the Lebanese side, as well as to diffuse tensions between Lebanese and Palestinians in the wake of the conflict," Hachem told NOW.

According to the Lebanese gathered in Akl's house, however, relations between the Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Nahr al-Bared are worsening by the day. "This year, unlike previous ones, we did not even exchange the traditional Eid visits with our Palestinian neighbors," Khodr Akl said. An army source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not allowed to give interviews to the press, acknowledged "that clashes have been growing in frequency inside the camp between Lebanese and Palestinians, but they remained under control."

If the aid finally reaches all of the former Nahr al-Bared residents, and after the camp gets rebuilt, the scars of the war and the resentment they have bred are likely to remain for a long time.