Lebanon, September 28, 2009 (Pal Telegraph)-Many of them left with little more than the clothes on their backs, fleeing a war they didn't understand, finding shelter that they thought was temporary for a few days, weeks or months - but not years.
Today, more than two years after their camp was destroyed in a war, the residents of Nahr El Bared camp continue to wait to return to their homes, not knowing how or when, their stories echoing those of their grandparents' exile from Palestine.
"The most beautiful years I spent were there," says Saleh Jawdat, a shopkeeper near the destroyed Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. "We all lived and worked together. I never noticed the time pass. But I know exactly how long it's been since the camp was destroyed."
Of all the refugee camps in Lebanon, Nahr El Bared might have been the least likely to experience violent conflict, let alone a 3-month war that left most of the town of 33,000 in ruins.
Until the 2007 war (May 19 to August 24) between the Lebanese military and Fatah al-Islam, Nahr El Bared defied all stereotypes of a squalid Palestinian refugee camp. In the coastal settlement on the Mediterranean Sea, Palestinians and Lebanese lived together, worked together and often intermarried.
Palestinians now boast with nostalgia that shoppers would come from as far as Beirut to find good deals in Nahr El Bared, at the time the largest market in northern Lebanon. And both Lebanese and Palestinians quickly say with pride that the Palestinians of Nahr El Bared are part Lebanese society, no different from anyone else - statement not often heard in this part of the world where the "right to return" is considered sacred and where sectarian laws prevent Palestinian Muslims from having most basic rights.
"Before the destruction, life was good," recalls Shadi Awad, who grew up in Nahr El Bared and who works at a poultry shop just outside the camp. "Everything was good. It was the best camp in Lebanon. We had everything - clinics, grocery stores, clothing stores. The neighbors would come and shop."
Now, he says, "People are forbidden to enter the camp. I miss the old atmosphere with the neighbors. I wish we could visit each other."
He adds, "With the inspections and the checkpoints, you could say the economy is dead, and so is the community."
From the shop where he sells chickens, across the highway to Tripoli, he can see the camp that was once an integral part of the local society and economy. For example, it had 20 dental clinics that served the entire population of northern Lebanon. Today, the once scenic town on the sea is hidden behind makeshift metal walls, sandbags and barbed wires.
Lebanese soldiers check the IDs and inspect the cars of all those who enter the camp. (About 15,000 residents have returned to live in the adjacent camp, known as the "new camp, "but the official camp or the "old camp" remains uninhabited). It is not possible to see it from the main road, and once inside, photography is forbidden. The present prison-like conditions appear to be an affront to the happy memories of the residents.
"Do you see that guy who just came into the shop with me?" says Khalil Awad, Shadi's cousin and co-worker. "We've been neighbors for 60 years. I'm Palestinian and he's Lebanese, and now he needs permission to visit me. There's no difference between us. The only difference is that this has become a military zone."
So, how did such a dynamic community with a history of coexistence become the scene of worst internal conflict in Lebanon since the civil war? And why have more than two years passed with no clear plan of rebuilding what could be considered a success story in Lebanon's tragic history of conflict with its Palestinian communities?
The Problem of Refugee Camps
Under the 1969 Cairo Accord, Lebanon's 12 UNWRA camps were removed from the jurisdiction of the Lebanese army.
The problems of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon date back to the late 1960s, following Arab defeat in the 1967 war, and hence a heightened awareness of the Palestinian cause in the region. A series of agreements gave Palestinians a form of sovereignty over their camps as well as a portion of south Lebanon. Under the 1969 Cairo Accord, Lebanon's 12 official UNWRA camps were removed from the jurisdiction of the Lebanese army, thereby creating bases for the Palestinian armed resistance movement.
This became compounded by the events of Black September, when the Palestinian leadership was driven out of Jordan to Lebanon, turning it into the center of Palestinian resistance. Over the following 40 years, Lebanon would experience a series of Israeli invasions and countless violations of its sovereignty - including the occupation of the capital of Beirut in 1982.
With almost no civil rights - including being forbidden from voting, owning property and working in most professions - but with access to weapons, Palestinians in Lebanon became vulnerable to extremist movements.
Despite the Israeli withdrawal of southern Lebanon in 2000, it wasn't until the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops that Lebanon finally began to work on some of its long-neglected issues, including the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian refugee camps.
"For the entire period, from the early 1970s to 2005, the question of the camps wasn't dealt with properly," says Khalil Makkawi, former Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations and president of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, a project created to help resolve the longstanding political issues between the Palestinians and the Lebanese government. "Lebanon was in turmoil and the Palestinian camps were a state within a state. Since 2005, we've been working diligently to address the humanitarian conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon."
Although conditions in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, including Nahr El Bared, began improving in 2005, they were still filled with weapons, and thus attractive to extremists.
"We believe that as long as these camps are living in such misery and deprivation, they are fertile ground for extremists and fundamentalists," says Makkawi. "The proof is in Nahr el Bared, when extremists took over the camp."
On May 20, 2007, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces attacked a building where they believed members of an al Qaeda-inspired group Fatah al Islam were hiding after robbing a bank. The Lebanese forces then entered the camp, and searched door by door for the militants.
This was followed by a day-long battle between the ISF and Fatah al Islam. In revenge, members of Fatah al Islam killed six soldiers in their sleep at an army checkpoint near the camp. The army then responded by shelling the entire camp.
In the three months that followed, the camp became subject to continuous shelling by the two groups, in the end leaving more than 300 killed and displacing the camp's 33,000 residents. The vast majority of those caught in the crossfire were innocent civilians, and only a small percentage of Palestinians from the camp belonged to Fatah al Islam.
Some of the camp's residents have doubts they will ever see their camp rebuilt.
Meanwhile, most of the Nahr El Bared's inhabitants fled to the nearby Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli (doubling that camp's population), Muhammra (an area across the highway from the camp), Tripoli and Beirut.
The conflict ended on Sunday September 2, 2007 with the Lebanese Army taking full control of the camp. But for the refugees, the struggle continues, as many continue to live in the same makeshift conditions, where they took what they thought was just temporary shelter more than two years ago.
The reconstruction of the camp should have started by now. But when the Lebanese Army discovered what is thought to be a Roman city, the project was put on hold.
The LPDC and UNRWA have appealed to the council of ministers to resume the reconstruction of the camp, and they expect a response soon.
They already have a plan of how to rebuild to accommodate the ruins, once they get the green light. Charlie Higgins, project manager of Nahr El Bared, says that the ruins will be filled in, and the foundation will be on mats one meter above the ruins. "It will be a more complex and time-consuming process," Higgins acknowledges.
So far, the camp has been cleared of all 11,500 unexploded ordinances, and the reconstruction of the entire camp has been redesigned. Of the $330 million required to rebuild the camp, $100 million in donations has been received.
But some of the camp's residents have doubts they will ever see their camp rebuilt, because of the sensitive issue of "resettling" Palestinians in their Arab host countries, the ancient ruins beneath the destroyed camp and the Lebanon's delay in forming a new government following its June elections.
"It will be hard to rebuild like before," says Shadi Awad, from the poultry shop. "With no government, nothing is happening."
As for the Roman ruins, he sees that as an excuse by the government to further delay the project, noting that "there are Roman ruins all over Lebanon, but usually no ones cares." He adds that he doesn't think the reconstruction of the camp will jeopardize the Palestinians' right of return.
Ahmed Sayour, a Lebanese grocer who lives just outside the camp, and who now needs permission to enter, says, "I think the government will prevent reconstruction because of the weapons."
To date, no Palestinian camp destroyed in Lebanon has been rebuilt.
However, if everything does go as planned, the entire camp will be rebuilt within 2 to 3 years. It will be considered part of Lebanese territory, meaning if will have its own municipality, it will be free of weapons and people will be able to move in and out of the camp without having to pass through a military checkpoint. Makkawi says he hopes this will be a good model for other camps.
On the other hand, he says, "If the camp is not rebuilt, there will be 30,000 to 40,000 displaced Palestinians."
He adds, "Rebuilding the camp will be a good sign that Palestinians will have the right to go back to their homeland."
For now, the people of Nahr El Bared wait with frustration to return to their homes, clinging to memories of much better days and worried about a very uncertain future.
"I don't think the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared will be without challenges. But I think it's going to happen," says Higgins. "The old market that once flourished can only open if the camp is rebuilt."
Brooke Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon.