Returning refugees face dire conditions in Nahr al-Bared.


    By Michael Bluhm. Daily Star. Wednesday, October 31, 2007.


    Photo: Helicopter Photo of Nahr el-Bared, October 2007.

BEIRUT: International donors have not sent any money for the Palestinian refugees and Lebanese affected by the conflict at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, more than six weeks after Premier Fouad Siniora asked a donor conference for $55 million, a number of relief officials said. The hundreds of refugee families returning to the battle-scarred camp are facing desperate conditions, although their departure from public schools near the camp has at least begun to release the tensions between the displaced and the Lebanese locals, said Ambassador Khalil Makkawi, head of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee. Over three months of fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam militants largely destroyed the camp and its environs, while the camp’s 31,000-plus residents fled soon after the hostilities began.

The donor community has pledged about $25 million, led by a US promise of $10 million, but the money needs to come through soon, said Hoda al-Turk, a spokeswoman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which cares for Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. “Nothing has materialized, in effect, until now,” Makkawi told The Daily Star on Tuesday. “That’s why we have again urged the donors to come forward. The message should be given to the donors that they should move faster to help us.

“It’s badly needed for the Palestinian side and the Lebanese side,” he added.

Makkawi pointed out that the $55 million requested includes $28 million in emergency relief for six Lebanese communities around the camp. The $55 million should provide for those villages and the camp’s evacuees until September 2008, while rebuilding the camp and the surrounding areas could cost more than $382 million, according to preliminary studies released at the September 10 donor conference at the Grand Serail.

The empty coffers contrast sharply with the response to the UNRWA flash appeal for $12.66 million in June, not long after the violence erupted on May 20. Donors gave more than $17 million, and the funds mostly arrived within one month after the appeal, which was designed to see refugees through August of this year, said Turk.

Absent the pledged amounts, UNRWA has had to tap into other sources to address the evacuees’ needs, she added.

“It’s a need to get the money, for sure,” she said. “If we’ve asked for the money, it means we need it. We’re using money from other resources.”

She downplayed the lag between the pledges and the receipt of money, saying UNRWA could not yet even begin the most expensive part of the emergency-relief plan – removing the rubble from the camp – because army sappers have not allowed UNRWA and its partners into the old camp. The old camp – the area nearest the sea – suffered the worst damage in the conflict and army explosives experts are still clearing ordnance.

Members of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee have been visiting embassies here and pushing donors to speed up the delivery of their pledges, said committee member Rima Abushakra.

Donors have to deal with budgets running low as the calendar year comes to a close, and they have to determine whether to allocate funds for the Nahr al-Bared aftermath from their budgets for Lebanese or for Palestinians, she added.

The refugees, meanwhile, have returned to a camp without an infrastructure, and many families are residing in buildings without windows and doors, Makkawi said.

“At the beginning it was difficult – we should not hide it,” Makkawi said. “The camp was in bad shape. Many things were lacking. It’s a question of time and money. Now, this is a difficult time.”

In one case, four families are living in a four-room-apartment, one family to a room and everyone sharing the facilities, said Rola Istambouli, who administered for the committee a public school in Beddawi which sheltered evacuees.

“All the families are sharing the same bathroom, sharing the same toilet,” said Istambouli, who visited the new camp Saturday. “It was like a nightmare. It’s impossible to live there.”

More than 800 families had returned to the new camp, Turk said, referring to the section of the camp closer to the highway where 65 percent of the buildings remain inhabitable, according to construction firm Khatib and Alami.

The last displaced left Sunday from the government schools where they had taken shelter, Abushakra said. The committee looked after about 2,200 refugees in eight public schools in Beddawi and other villages near Nahr al-Bared, she added.

The refugees departed Istambouli’s school Friday, and their uncertain future made their exit an unhappy one, she said.

“It was awful,” she said. “It was very painful for me and for the families. All the people are going, without knowing where they’re going.”

The departure of the displaced from the schools was rushed because of the mounting ire of the local populace – the presence of the evacuees has delayed the start of the new academic year, Makkawi said.

“The entry of those people [back to the Nahr al-Bared camp] was a little bit hasty, but the Palestinians were urging

[the committee], and also we had the problem in the schools,” Makkawi added. “This tension is subsiding.”

“There was a lot of pressure from the local community,” added Abushakra. “There was pressure to get the schools emptied as soon as possible.”

Last week Lebanese citizens blocked roads and burned tires to call attention to their ambition to rid the schools of the evacuees. Demonstrators had twice previously blocked the coastal highway.

“Last week it was very bad,” said Istambouli. Locals just wanted their children to start school, she added, and blamed political interests for provoking the incidents. When the unrest broke out last week, refugees had already left six of the eight schools, she said.

“It’s inexplicable,” she said. “I think it’s a political issue. It’s not the citizens of Beddawi who did this.”

Regardless of the strained situation and the destitute conditions in the camp, Istambouli will be returning to Nahr al-Bared on Thursday, she said. Two refugees are getting married in the camp that day.

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