Page last updated at 12:22 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Lebanon refugees fear for future

Ruins at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp
Months of fighting saw Nahr al-Bared mostly levelled and 30,000 displaced

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Tripoli, Lebanon

Ruins and rubble are all that is left of Nahr al-Bared, a camp for Palestinian refugees near the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Piles of ravaged concrete tower over the Mediterranean, cutting into the grey clouds of the winter sky. As we pass a battered army checkpoint the scale of destruction emerges - mind-boggling and depressing at the same time.

"It was scary, very scary," our guide Fady Tayyar says as we drive into the camp accompanied by the Lebanese army. No-one is allowed to enter Nahr al- Bared without permission.

"You expected at any time to be shelled or to be hit by sniper fire. Everyone was afraid to go out of the house," he remembers.


Mr Tayyar, who now works for the United Nations, lost his home in Nahr al-Bared in 2007 when Lebanese soldiers fought a vicious battle against the militants from Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist militant group believed to be linked to or inspired by al-Qaeda.

The Lebanese army emerged victorious from three months of fighting, finally able to demonstrate success against a militant group. But this came at a price - 400 people were killed on both sides and 30,000 Palestinian refugees were displaced.

Many of them now live in areas surrounding the ruins, and they rely entirely on aid provided by the UN.

Money running out

"People have lots of fears about the reconstruction of the camp. Many Palestinian camps were destroyed but never rebuilt, and many fear that Nahr al-Bared will be another example of that," says Mr Tayyar.

They have good reason to worry - the UN has recently begun clearing the rubble but the international community has failed to raise the money for reconstruction and now the UN is running out of funds to feed and house the refugees.

We can't find jobs here, but we can find guns. They are mistaken if they think that an army checkpoint will prevent people from bringing guns in

Former Nahr al-Bared resident

An appeal for US $43m (UK 29m) to provide emergency food and shelter has been met with only a $4.3 million pledge by the United States.

Lebanon's rich allies in the Gulf have promised aid, but have so far failed to deliver. Saudi Arabia has recently sent emergency aid supplies, but it was a tiny fraction of what is needed.

In a small ground floor flat a group of children play and giggle, as Renee Sayat shows me around her home - a garage converted into a small home.

"We are lucky to have this," she said.

Like many of the former residents of Nahr al-Bared, Renee's family relies entirely on the UN for rent, for food, even for drinking water. And like everyone here, she says she is terrified of losing this aid.

"My son has quit school so that he can help his father sell vegetables, but the money they make is not even enough for our rent. When we lost our house in Nahr al-Bared we lost all means of survival," she said.


Outside, on a muddy street, men and women huddle in small groups - suspicious and curious about rare visitors. "We are very isolated here," one of them said.

The Lebanese government sees the Palestinian camps like Nahr al-Bared as a major security threat.

Ofa and her granddaughter
Ofa, who has been displaced three times in her life, predicts just as hard a life for her granddaughter

The position of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has always been a difficult one.

There is a long history of Palestinian involvement in Lebanon's internal conflicts. Palestinians are barred from 73 professions, and allowed only menial jobs, so they don't upset Lebanon's employment market.

They cannot own property or use state health care and many say they face daily discrimination from the authorities.

Jamal, a former Nahr al-Bared resident who approached me on the street said that the real danger lies in neglect.

"We can't find jobs here, but we can find guns. They are mistaken if they think that an army checkpoint will prevent people from bringing guns in," Jamal said.

"I urge the international community to pay attention to us, to help us, otherwise terrorists will again find a place to flourish and to grow here," he said.

As the call for Friday prayers fills the air, the Lebanese soldiers hurry us along, saying it is time to leave.

"They don't want you finding out too much," a young boy comments with a smirk.

Refugee from a refugee camp

We have just enough time to stop by another house. We enter a dark sitting room, the walls riddled with bullet holes, which opens onto a terrace. There, in a corner an old woman sits minding her four-year-old granddaughter.

Ofa's face is lined with deep wrinkles, she is blind and she can't remember how old she is. Old enough, she tells me, to have seen it all.

Born in Palestine before the creation of Israel, Ofa has been displaced three times in her life, most recently when the fighting destroyed her house in Nahr al-Bared.

"It was a nice house, right next to the market," Ofa says, her frail watery eyes staring into the distance.

A refugee from a refugee camp, Ofa now lives with her niece. She says she has spent her lifetime waiting for help, and is now simply tired of waiting.

As the child next to her laughs Ofa turns at the sound and puts her dry, wrinkled hand on her granddaughter's round knee.

Her grim prediction comes without a smile: the little girl's future, she feels, will be just as hard as her own life has been.

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