Since the end of August, construction equipment in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, near the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, has stood unused after the Lebanese State Council granted a two month moratorium for the reconstruction of the camp. Nahr al-Bared, home to approximately 30,000 refugees, was destroyed during a three-month-long battle between the Lebanese army and the militant group Fatah al-Islam in the summer of 2007.
Although a master plan for the reconstruction was already compiled by early 2008 and approved by the Lebanese government, the beginning of the construction works was delayed again and again. Ancient ruins were discovered beneath the rubble of the camp this spring, but few among the refugees believed the reports. For the last two years they heard too many -- often flimsy -- reasons for repeated delays in the reconstruction of the camp.
However, the archaeological findings were legitimate and the Lebanese Directorate General for Antiquities (DGA) became involved. Along with the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and the office of the Lebanese prime minister, a solution was found: before the different sectors of the old camp would be backfilled and the concrete foundations laid, the DGA would excavate and document the archaeological findings.
The delay is understandably frustrating for refugees who could hardly believe their eyes when, after almost two years, reconstruction finally began in Nahr al-Bared late last June. According to UNRWA, the backfilling first stage of the eight-stage plan was almost complete by the end of August and the laying of the concrete foundation was about to start when the agency was ordered by the Lebanese government to halt construction.
Amr Saededine, an organizer with the Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission, told The Electronic Intifada, "There is a real fear in the camp based on previous experiences that the displacement will continue and they will not be allowed to return to Nahr al-Bared," referring to camps like Nabatiyeh, Tel al-Zatar and even areas of Shatila that were destroyed in the past and never rebuilt.
The leader of the opposition-aligned Free Patriotic Movement, former Lebanese General Michel Aoun, filed a plea this summer against the government's decision regarding the backfilling of the camp. On 18 August, the English-language Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star reported that the State Council, in light of Aoun's request, granted a moratorium for the time being. A definitive decision is expected in October.
Representatives of the Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission accuse Lebanese politicians of using the archaeological findings for scoring political gains. The commission points to a discourse demanding the transformation of the ancient ruins into a tourist site. In a recent speech, Michel Aoun denied delaying the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared but said: "It is the government's responsibility to purchase substitute lands to build the camp on, instead of rebuilding on the site where an archeological discovery was recently made." The commission meanwhile rejects resettling the refugees on lots surrounding Nahr al-Bared, calling Aoun's intentions "theoretical and unworkable."
Thousands of Nahr al-Bared residents organized a massive protest at the end of August at the entrance to the construction site, which was complemented by protests in other Palestinian refugee camps throughout Lebanon. Criticism not only targeted the halting of reconstruction, but also the Lebanese army's continued siege of the camp. The Lebanese army controls movement inside and at the perimeters of Nahr al-Bared, isolating the camp's residents and crippling its economy. On 16 September, the refugees took their protest to the streets of Tripoli where they were joined by Lebanese supporters.
Three protesters were shot dead and many others wounded at a demonstration during the military operations in Nahr al-Bared at the end of June 2007. Since then, protests have been limited to non-confrontational gatherings, but at a press conference on 3 September, activists from Nahr al-Bared hinted at launching a series of nonviolent direct actions and more strategic campaigns.
Saededine of the reconstruction commission stated that these latest protests were just the beginning: "There is an escalation happening now in the organizing against the halt to reconstruction. [The protests] began in Nahr al-Bared, then [the nearby refugee camp of] Baddawi, then Tripoli and next Beirut." He said that there would be a sit-in held on 12 October in downton Beirut "organized by all the camps in Lebanon, saying that we will not accept [a failure] to reconstruct Nahr al-Bared. This is also supported by forces in the Lebanese civil society [movement]."
Nahr al-Bared's refugees meanwhile stick to a slogan they've been using since the first days of their displacement in 2007. At the nearby Baddawi refugee camp, displaced families had taken refuge in schools which they refused to leave for other temporary shelter, claiming that they would only be satisfied by a return to Nahr al-Bared camp -- or to their property in Palestine.
This report was first published here by Electronic Lebanon.