A devastated town recovers, in a way

SIDDIQINE, Lebanon, 26 March (IPS) - Ali Mohanna lives in a two-room cinderblock structure with his wife and brain-damaged son. By the side is a small, freshly plowed tobacco field and the plot of rubble he once called home.

Mohanna’s house was bombed by Israel during the 34-day conflict in 2006, as were houses of most residents of Siddiqine — an impoverished village of 6,000, about 10km inland from the coastal town Tyre. Siddiqine resembled a flattened moonscape in the bitterly cold and damp winter that followed, with more than 700 homes out of a total 1,050 hit, and half that number completely destroyed.

Mohanna lost two tobacco harvests from the bombardment and unexploded cluster munitions, and is now 10,000 dollars in debt to his bank. Forced to give up supplementary work in construction after his heart surgery, the 62-year-old struggles to provide for his family and pay a monthly 100-dollar medication fee for his grown up son Ibrahim, who has violent seizures related to a lifelong affliction with chronic meningitis.

During the fall of 2006, the Iranian-backed Hizballah and its reconstruction wing, Jihad al-Binaa, criss-crossed the south and Beirut’s southern suburbs, surveying the destruction of up to 140,000 housing units valued at more than 1.5 billion dollars, and providing families up to 10,000 dollars for rentals while their homes were rebuilt.

Meanwhile, flush with funds from international donors, the notoriously corrupt Council of the South — facilitated by the Beirut government agency, the Higher Relief Council — also inspected war-torn communities with promises of financial compensation. Some countries “adopted” towns and infrastructure to rebuild, and as in Siddiqine’s case — where reconstruction is backed by Omani funds — the money is usually funneled through the Council of the South. However, widespread complaints of slow financial reimbursement by residents across the region prompted Qatar, a major reconstruction player, to compensate residents directly in the devastated towns of Aita al-Shaab, Bint Jbeil, Ainata and Khiam.

More than a year and a half later, Mohanna still waits for the government’s promised 8,000 dollars. Besides, he says, he has only received 3,000 dollars out of a potential 10,000 dollars from Hizballah.

The town’s long time mayor Ali Bolhos figures that while most residents with partially damaged houses have received up to 5,000 dollars in government compensation, one-third with houses totally destroyed remain unpaid. “It would have been much better if we had been adopted by Qatar, because Qatar is paying directly to the people,” he tells IPS.

Bolhos points to the repaved main road that runs through town, which after the conflict was badly marred by the bombing and rubble. “Iran built this road from Tyre to Tibnine. This road was planned for 35 years, and if it wasn’t for Iran it would have never been built.”

Mariam Bolhos (unrelated to the mayor), a 30-year-old architectural draftswoman for the international charity Habitat for Humanity, remembers returning to the ruins of her two-story family home where she was born and raised. “I can’t express my feelings when I saw it. It took until the second week for what happened to sink in, and come to terms with the situation.”

After negotiating an 8,000 dollar payment from Hizballah, Bolhos says Habitat for Humanity — who she was not affiliated with at the time — contributed nearly 5,000 dollars and expertise to convert an unused chicken farm into what they call a “core home”; a furnished space for herself, mother, father and brother.

However, Bolhos has also not received compensation funds from the government. “There are 100 families here that have not gotten the money yet,” she says. “The government says there are no funds now, because of the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared.” The refugee camp near Tripoli was nearly totally devastated last summer during the violence between the Lebanese army and the Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam, and its promised reconstruction has yet to start.

The region’s skyrocketing cost of steel and cement has exacerbated the difficulty of rebuilding, especially for those starting late. “Building costs have risen 70 to 90 percent since the war,” says Dani Tayar, the soft-spoken director for Habitat for Humanity, who estimates current steel prices at 1,250 dollars per ton, and cement at almost 80 dollars per ton. “Prices have gone up globally, not only in Lebanon.”

“Siddiqine was one of the most destructed areas we saw after the war,” Tayar remembers. He has helped over 350 families here with technical and monetary assistance. “When we arrived, there were heaps of rubble all over the place, and we came in escorted by the UN troops.

“There was some kind of thought of getting people tents or prefab houses,” he says. “But what we discovered was that these would not be accepted by anyone, even if they had no place to stay. People were always saying they wanted to stay in their old houses.”

Although Siddiqine’s main road is now peppered with construction sites, and structures are slowly rising, there is a prevalent mood of pessimism. “People helped each other before the war,” says Mariam Bolhos. “But since then, with the devastation around them, everyone lives in fear of another war. They will save even one dollar and will only buy bare necessities because they are so scared.”

“People with destroyed businesses and houses are suffering, and what is going to be done about it?” asks Ali Bolhos. “Now everything is about who is going to be president, and the government, but who cares about the people? There is no interaction between the government and the people.

“Most revolutions are because of hunger and poverty,” he adds.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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