Publisher: The NY Times
Author: By THANASSIS CAMBANIS
Story date: 11/10/2007
NAHR AL BARED REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon, Oct. 10 — The first 500 Palestinian refugees returned here on Wednesday to find many of their shell-shattered homes unlivable, a month after the Lebanese Army ousted a jihadist splinter group from the camp.
At the main gate, the trickle of refugees the army had permitted to go home braved a gantlet of hecklers, razor wire and soldiers who searched their bags of food and clothing.
"All that was left of my room was the four walls," said Maysa al-Sharaf, 23, who found piles of rubble filling each room of her home. "I was hoping to find something — at least my favorite pair of black trousers. But there was nothing."
She was so devastated that she returned to her temporary lodgings in another camp, her cellphone full of fuzzy images of destruction she had snapped despite army warnings that photography was prohibited. "This is my friend's living room," she said, showing a photograph of upturned, broken furniture and walls punctured by shells. "She hasn't seen it yet."
Lebanese officials said they wanted to create from the camp's ruins a "new model" for the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in the country, who have largely been a force unto themselves for more than three decades. Most are people who fled the Israeli military in 1948, or their descendants. Many others came after the 1967 war.
To build this model, the government must balance the demands of the refugees against those of the Lebanese host population, which is strapped by unemployment and economic stagnation.
"This is going to be a model, so the Palestinians see they are better off under the authority of the Lebanese government," said Khalil Makkawi, the leader of a government committee charged with negotiating between the government and the Palestinians.
Tensions run high between Lebanese, who blame the Palestinians for turning a blind eye to violent jihadists like Fatah al Islam, and Palestinians, who say the Lebanese trap them in poverty and confine them in camps with no productive distractions for the young.
The government's effort to improve the situation has been more a model of heightened conflict than of coexistence.
The Lebanese Army drove out Fatah al Islam, a small group of insurgents, on Sept. 2, after three months of fighting that killed 157 soldiers and more than 100 militants. The fight at Nahr al Bared spread only briefly to one other camp because there was little popular support for the Islamist faction. But if the Lebanese government threatens the autonomy of other armed Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, it could meet much stiffer and wider resistance.
"Fatah al Islam had nothing to do with us," said Ahmed Abu Eid, 37, who was squatting in the schoolyard of Beddawi refugee camp, where most of the refugees from Nahr al Bared live. "We didn't go and bring them from Syria and Saudi Arabia." His house was destroyed, and he has been told to find housing for his family until the old camp is rebuilt, in two or three years.
Standing by a festering barrel of garbage, he watched with relatives as those allowed to return on Wednesday took permission slips from United Nations officials and piled into minibuses for the half-hour drive to the seaside. With a detached look in her eyes and no smile, one relative slowly clapped for a departing bus.
"They're going home," said the woman, Manal Ahmed Haj. "We're not going anywhere."
Mr. Abu Eid added, "We'd rather join them in the rubble than continue living in this school."
On Wednesday, journalists were allowed just inside the main gate of the camp, closely accompanied by soldiers. But those allowed farther inside said that many buildings had been set on fire or stripped bare.
"We saw houses burned from the inside, the appliances gone, and even a stolen refrigerator blocking a stairwell," said Greg Ross, a Scottish volunteer from the nonprofit group Nabaa, who accompanied refugees.
Some refugees have seen their furniture and televisions on sale in local markets, he said. The military denies that it allowed soldiers or outsiders to loot the camp, but the accusations have heightened tensions between the military and the Palestinians.
"My three sons were soldiers, and they died fighting here," a woman at the camp gate shouted at the Palestinians. "They'll never come home. Why should you be allowed to go home?"
It was unclear how many of the refugees — a tiny fraction of the 32,000 displaced from the camp by the fighting — would be able to remain in their homes, which also had widespread damage from bullets, shells and shrapnel. Ahmed Bashir Abu Rabih was told by the United Nations agency in charge of the camps that his house was safe for habitation, but on Wednesday he found the road home blocked by rubble. He stayed with a cousin in a less damaged part of the camp.
The standoff at the camp prompted a backlash against the Palestinians and exacerbated their fears that they could lose what little autonomy they had to work and travel outside of their camps. Palestinians are not allowed to hold most skilled jobs and must have permission from the Lebanese military to leave their camps. But inside, Palestinian factions have free rein, including the right to bear arms.
"From the beginning, they didn't like having Palestinians here," said Dalal Kohder, 23, a refugee whose family home here had been reduced to rubble. She predicted that now, her family would have to live under greater scrutiny. "They're not going to give us more freedom," she said. "They'll humiliate us."
Refugees Global Press Review
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