Refugees to prime minister: End military siege of our camp

A Lebanese soldier stands near destroyed homes and shops in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

While Lebanese officials were publicly denouncing Israel’s war on the Palestinians of Gaza, the Lebanese cabinet was busy making sure the Palestinians of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon never recover from the war waged on their community more than a year ago. For more than three months, the Lebanese army fought the Fatah al-Islam group that had infiltrated the camp. On 16 January 2009, the cabinet approved a decision to build a naval base in the area. The decision was met with stern opposition by the people of Nahr al-Bared who wrote a letter of protest addressed to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his ministers. The letter was published in two major Lebanese newspapers, As-Safir and Al-Akhbar, but has triggered little follow-up reaction in the press so far.

Al-Akhbar’s Ghassan Saoud says the people in the camp these days are weary of criticizing the Lebanese army out loud but more convinced than ever that there is no will to rebuild the camp and properly resettle its inhabitants. According to Saoud, people point to four developments that seem to dim any chances of full reconstruction and rehabilitation of the camp: the continued lack of adequate financial funds for reconstruction; the call by most officials with the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) for people to “get used to” the contemporary homes currently set up in the camp; the distribution of returned refugees into isolated spots in the camp that prevents the revival of a closely-knit community; and the continued siege of the camp by the Lebanese army that suffocates the prospects of economic revival. The decision to build a base can only exacerbate the last condition. The letter is clear about the detrimental effect of such a siege. The following is a translation of the Arabic-language letter published by Al-Akhbar on Saturday, 24 January 2009:

Mr. Prime Minister the Honorable Fouad Siniora,
Honorable Ministers,

We, the residents of Nahr al-Bared, are addressing this letter to you to vehemently protest the Lebanese cabinet’s latest decision on 16 January 2009 to build a naval base on the shores of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. We also wish to protest earlier decisions to establish a land military base in the area of Nahr al-Bared.

Are you not aware that the land that you earlier agreed to build a military base on is situated near the UNRWA’s elementary and intermediate schools? And that the same piece of land is in a residential area and used to be a soccer field, the only sports venue in the camp and its surroundings?

And do you know that prior to the battle with Fatah al-Islam, one of the tracts of land slated for the naval base used to house two wedding halls? These wedding halls were an important outlet that hosted celebrations symbolizing coexistence between us and our sister communities and neighbors in the [areas of] Mahmara and Haneen and al-Abdeh and the Akkar plain.

Can you explain to us why, after our homes were destroyed and we lost our belongings in a battle we had no hand in, we are being rewarded with military bases?

Is the aim of reconstruction to replace a site of celebration and fun and a dignified existence with that of military and naval bases?

How do you expect us after returning to our destroyed camp following a three month battle to make sense of the looting and burning that our houses were subjected to?

For despite the slogans heralding the return of the rule of law, we do not see any legal actions or retribution initiated against the perpetrators of these crimes that took place on the army’s watch. Security is not achieved through setting up military and naval and land bases and army and internal security offices in the absence of transparency and the respect of law and people’s rights.

You asked us — during the war and after — to share the responsibility and we evacuated our homes to facilitate the army’s execution of its duty. Why is our camp under siege with the erection of cement walls and barbed wire and where we are barred from entry or exit except though military checkpoints and using permits issued exclusively by the army’s intelligence services? And why is the media barred from entering the camp?

Are you aware, Mr. Prime Minister and ministers, that due to this cordoning imposed on the camp, trade has come to a standstill and our links to the Lebanese surroundings that reflected exemplary relations of coexistence have been severed? Today, Lebanese sellers and buyers avoid the camp due to the humiliation of waiting and wasting time at army checkpoints at the gates of the camp or due to having to obtain an entry permit from the army’s intelligence office. Under these terms, the meager economic aid of donor nations is useless because economic activity is paralyzed due to the complicated security measures in place.

Do you realize, Mr. Prime Minister, that until now and 17 months after the end of the battle, reconstruction efforts of the three hundred buildings in the new [area of the] camp has gone nowhere as a result of the unjust law prohibiting Palestinians from owning land or real estate? And do you know that until today, we are not allowed to return to our homes situated near the old [area of the] camp?

We also object to your request to finance a project for a “societal police” of internal security worth 5 million dollars as part of rebuilding the camp, a request you made without our knowledge or consent.

Mr. Prime Minister and Ministers,

You, who are opposed to the siege of Gaza and the crazy war launched on it, why don’t you support this same people [the Palestinian] in Lebanon by granting it a dignified existence without military constraints and laws prohibiting the right to work or own or even bequeath property to one’s descendants.

We thought we were partners and refused to believe in a conspiracy theory that claimed the destruction of the camp was intended to allow for the building of naval and land military bases. However, we have no choice but offer a negative reading of the situation of inhumanity and humiliation we live in.

Having expressed our opinion and spoken of our reality and the unbearable conditions being forced upon us, we shall assume that you are now aware of it.
And so we kindly urge you to review the condition of this camp and to remove all military manifestations on its ground. We also urge you to remove the barbed wire and barriers and to facilitate the movement of people and the return of normal civilian life to its former state.

We also hope that you revisit the decisions issued in relation to Nahr al-Bared camp after its destruction in light of the difficult times that all Palestinians are going through, and we beseech you to place military and naval bases far from Palestinian and Lebanese schools and neighborhoods.

Translation and introduction by Hicham Safieddine, a Lebanese Canadian journalist who contributes the regular Electronic Lebanon feature Meet the Lebanese Press.

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