Refugees return to devastated Lebanon camp

Dozens of families, many of them empty-handed, returned on Wednesday to a bombed-out Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon that was the scene of 15 weeks of fierce battles between the army and Islamist militants.

Buses and mini-vans hired by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and bearing Palestinian flags picked up the first families from the Beddawi refugee camp for the short drive to Nahr al-Bared camp, located outside the city of Tripoli.

Some refugees were carrying plastic bags with just a few personal belongings, while the majority waited empty-handed and expressionless at the eastern entrance to the devastated seafront camp for the army to search them before allowing them in.

“I am happy to be going home but I’m very scared,” Insaf Fuad (25) said as she waited for clearance with her husband and four children, aged one to four. “I am scared of what is waiting for us and I know that our house was partially destroyed.”

Each family entering the camp was given two handouts, one bearing photos of munitions that still litter part of the shantytown and another specifying which areas remain off-limits.

The media was kept at bay and banned from entering the camp and the relief workers were asked to leave their cameras outside.

“Those who have seen the destruction say it looks as if an earthquake has struck the camp,” said Waleed Abu Heit, a Palestinian cleric who fled at the onset of the conflict with the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group in May.

No specific date has been given for the return of the rest of Nahr al-Bared’s 31 000 mainly Palestinian refugees, who were forced to flee at the onset of the fighting on May 20.

The battles—the deadliest internal bloodletting since Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war—ended on September 2 when Lebanese troops finally overcame the last pockets of resistance.

At least 400 people died, including 168 troops.

The heaviest gun battles took place in the so-called Old Camp, most of which was reduced to rubble. Authorities say it could take up to four years to rebuild the community at a cost of nearly $400-million.

The Lebanese army this week granted permission for more than 400 displaced families to return to the newest part of the camp, which was not as devastated.

Carrying the blue identity card of Palestinian refugees, Ibrahim Khalil looked sadly out of the bus window which took him home.

“I am not happy to return, my home and school have both been ruined,” said the 12-year-old, who arrived with his mother and five brothers.

A teenage boy was refused entry and referred to UNRWA officials as “boys above 14 years old need another permit in addition to that of the family”, an official said.

UNRWA said 100 families would return each day and would be given emergency items including mattresses, pillows, kitchen items and food parcels.

“We have stocked food and other items inside the camp for the families and there will also be a mobile clinic to provide medical assistance,” said Hoda Al-Turk, a spokesperson for UNRWA.

The return of the refugees should ease overcrowding at Beddawi and clear Lebanese government schools of displaced families.

UNRWA said it was also building temporary accommodation near Nahr al-Bared for about 122 families whose homes were reduced to rubble, and providing many with rental subsidies.

But it is still unclear when people from the Old Camp can return.

“I thought I could celebrate Eid al-Fitr in my own house, but I still have to wait for months,” complained Asmaa al-Jenneyat, who had turned up hoping to get inside.

A pro-Syrian Palestinian group, Fatah Intifada, “welcomed the respect shown by the Lebanese government to its commitments”.

The organisation, which is accused of helping to install Fatah Al-Islam in Nahr Al-Bared, called on Lebanese people living by the camp to “turn the page” and “forget the conflicts of the past months”.—AFP

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