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November 15, 2010
 

Nahr el Bared Camp, The Catastrophe of 2007

I arrived at Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee Camp in North Lebanon last Thursday night. It is not really the camp, but the area adjacent to the original camp, otherwise known as the new camp. For the original camp was obliterated in the summer of 2007 in a battle between the Lebanese army and a little known group called Fatah al Islam.

The day following my arrival, I took a look at the construction of homes at the edge of the camp.  I saw several multi story building. The construction seemed just like any large housing development in any part of the world.  Since I was not allowed to enter the original camp, I turned back with incongruous feelings, while happy to see a light at the end of the suffering tunnel for about 40,000 who were left homeless since summer 2007; at the same time I saw the construction project just a shelter to provide housing for the new refugees. For the collective memory of the community was demolished under the shelling and later under the bulldozers of the so called rebuilding efforts.

I expounded n my book “Children of Catastrophe” on the destruction of the camp in summer 2007. Three years since this catastrophe, the area continued to be a closed military area. Access to the part adjacent to the original camp is controlled by army check points. No Palestinian is allowed to enter the camp without a special permit issued by head of the Lebanese army information unit (military intelligence) in north Lebanon. The camp, which is under slow moving construction, is further isolated from its old residence. The area is cordoned by barbed wires and another special permit is needed to enter the original camp. 

This means that approximately 20,000 people who moved back to live either in their damaged homes or rented car garages in the new camp must have a permit to come back to their home. Identification cards are checked and compared to a companion permits before being allowed entry. In 1997 I was in Gaza where I observed similar conditions to the people in Gaza, but in reverse. It was much easier at the time to enter into Gaza but was much more difficult to leave the doomed strip. Only those with special permit were able to depart Gaza. In Nahr el Bared, only those with special permit are allowed to enter. I understand the exit permit was removed following protestation from camp residents.

Tomorrow is the Eid when camp residents visit the old cemetery, and this year they are promised open access. Tomorrow, I’ll join along with thousands of camp’s homeless for the less than ½ a mile walk passing by my old neighborhood which I had visited in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, I noticed an army officer who was belligerent with couple of young men carrying the Palestinian flag. This year, I learned that this same officer was arrested for being an Israeli Spy. The officer’s first name was Bulos from the Lebanese town of Amcheet.

In that December day 2008, I was overwhelmed by the scene of the flattened homes, where I was not able to recognize the remnants of my childhood home, below is a section from the book explaining my encounter:

I did not recognize any of the scenes that passed before my eyes. The place looked more like a Hollywood film set than a community that had housed more than forty thousand people. And then we reached our neighborhood, and he said this was our play area, and over there you can see the vestige of our childhood home. My brother Majed caught up with us and disagreed [with my younger brother Kamal] about which demolished structure was our home. I was completely befuddled by the tableau. This was the house I had lived in for the first eighteen years of my life, this was the neighborhood where I swam, fished, labored, sold aggregate and bones. This was supposed to be the place of my childhood and adolescent memories. This was the house and the neighborhood I had last visited three years earlier. And yet, it bore absolutely no resemblance to anything I could remember.

Although, in my memories, I can still internally visualize my childhood home and neighborhood, the sight of the ruins in front of me felt as if the first eighteen years of my life had been eradicated.

The 2009 visit was different as the destroyed homes were graded leaving no resemblance to what was once the home for more than 6000 houses. I should expect to see tomorrow new construction of the new school campus and one of about eight promised sections to house the displaced 40,000 residents.  The school should be ready for the new school year in the fall 2011; the first part of the housing construction is promised to be available for some residence sometimes next year.

When the promised construction is completed, it will bring accommodations to house those who were left homeless since summer 2007.  But no structure is able to bring back the collective memory for its 40,000 inhabitants. It certainly will never bring my memory of the happy or gloomy days in the camp that represented Palestine away from Palestine for 60 years before its demise.