Lebanons Palestinian Ghetto Redesigned
`This is our own nakba'
Nael Abu Siam, 40, and his family were among the 30,000 Palestinians who fled Nahr al-Bared in May last year. By this January, the Siams were still living in a schoolroom at the Beddawi Palestinian camp, 20km away from Nahr al-Bared. There, Nael sat with his wife Hala, 38, and six children, among the piles of bedding which they took out at night and placed on the floor, sleeping side by side. Of the first night's shelling, Nael said: "We felt our house wasn't made of real cement - it was like a cartoon, it felt everything was moving. It was dark and the way wasn't safe because the bombs had destroyed the roads."
"I carried him," he said, gesturing to his son, Hassan, 11, who suffers from spina bifida, and seated in his wheelchair. Hassan watched his father recount their escape. "I was running," said Nael, "and sometimes I fell down and caught him - carefully, so as not to drop him." Hala and the children listened. The eldest, Samiha, 14, held the baby like a mother, soothing it whenever its crying threatened to interrupt the conversation.
A tarpaulin curtain was draped across the centre of the room and on the other side was the Saadi family, who came from a different part of Nahr al-Bared but were now the Siams' accidental neighbours. Bassem Saadi, 44, his wife Manal, 36, and their four daughters fled during the early stages of the battle, along with most refugees. In the weeks that followed, the Saadis had a terrible wait, with distant sounds of shelling and gunfire at Nahr al-Bared, as they wondered if their home had been hit.
Then they saw a photograph on the cover of the Lebanese daily Safir. There was their home: all that remained was a single part of the structure and a lone window. The memories flooded back. "I remembered my daughters used to stand at that window and wave to me as I went to work," said Bassem. "I cannot believe what happened." Manal added: "I feel there is something deep inside me that is gone."
The sudden destruction of their homes and community traumatised many of the Nahr al-Bared refugees. Not for the first time. Many families, like the Wehedis, first came to Nahr al-Bared in 1976, fleeing the Tel al-Zaatar (Palestinian) camp in east Beirut, when it was destroyed in a long siege ending in a massacre by the Christian Phalangist militia with the backing of the Syrian forces. In their temporary shelter in a building near Nahr al-Bared, Mohammed Ahmad Wehedi, 60, and his wife spoke of the Tel al-Zaatar massacre - the gunfire, the shelling, the deaths, the rushed departure, the fear of rape. Their voices grew fainter and fainter into the dark.
Once emptied, Tel al-Zaatar was bulldozed over and never rebuilt. Grass grew over it and a few olive and fig trees sprouted up. Today, the only sign that it was ever home to anything but vegetation are the crumbled remains of a few burnt-out bomb shelters on its periphery. "There is a fear among us now that until we see the buildings rebuilt with our own eyes, we won't stop worrying that it might not be rebuilt," said Wehedi of Nahr al-Bared. The continued prohibition on re-entry to the camp enforced by the army has not helped.
There were other memories. Many families, like the Siams and the Saadis, spoke of their loss by reference to the event that binds them all as Palestinians in exile: the nakba (disaster), when they or their ancestors fled or were forced to leave Palestine 60 years ago. "For our generation, this is our own nakba," said Manal Saadi. "My parents used to talk to me about the old places and ways of life in Palestine. Nahr al-Bared became our country and now I will have to describe what it was like to my daughters."
"Nahr al-Bared, for us and our kids, it's a second Palestine," said Nael Abu Siam. "We have to return because we have everything there, everything - the memories, the births, the friends, our houses. Nahr al-Bared for us, it's not only houses, it's our history."
In March the tarpaulin curtain was taken down, and both families returned, with 1,500 other displaced families, to temporary prefabricated housing units placed by UNRWA around the periphery of the camp, which still remains sealed off. On 5 June the bulldozers rolled in to start clearing the broken remnants of Nahr al-Bared. Construction is supposed to start by the end of the year, and will begin with the bulldozing of the rubble to make way for the new camp. This winter, as the grass recedes, the families will watch as Lebanon's unprecedented new security project rises from the earth.
Original text in English