Nahr al-Bared camp still in limbo

 Nearly nine years after clashes destroyed the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp near Tripoli, challenges persist, delaying the reconstruction of the enclave, leaving thousands in limbo. “Nahr al-Bared is one of the most challenging projects UNRWA has taken part in and the problems and challenges were raised before the Crisis Cell [concerning hospitalization] was established,” Zizette Darkazally, head of communications for UNRWA in Lebanon, told The Daily Star.
Negotiations have been ongoing since the reconstruction process started following the battles. The new committee is made up of technocrats and specialists on both sides looking into health, reconstruction, and contentious issues.
“It is very technical,” Hamas Vice Political Official for north Lebanon and a member of the negotiating committee for Palestinians Ahmad Abu Baker Assadi told The Daily Star. “On the Reconstruction Committee we have Palestinian engineers talking to UNRWA engineers, the Emergency Services Committee we have doctors talking with doctors.”
UNRWA planned to complete the reconstruction within three years but a number of challenges emerged almost instantly. A lack of funds, hampered access, security considerations, and bureaucracy to carry out work has pushed back the completion schedule time and again.
“The first issue [being discussed now] is the obvious one, it’s the reconstruction. It’s been too long, far too long,” Darkazally said. “It’s not all about money, money is a big issue in terms of fundraising but Nahr al-Bared isn’t viewed as an emergency by the donors in light of what else is happening in the region.”
Nahr al-Bared was severely damaged during a three-month battle in 2007 between the Islamic extremist group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Army. Over 160 soldiers and 200 insurgents were killed in the battle. The fighting displaced 27,000 Palestinian refugees from the camp.
In 2008, a number of countries came together in Vienna and promised funding to rebuild the camp and support Palestinians during the process with an Emergency Plan. As of March 2016, 1,000 families were able to return to a newly completed neighborhoods in Nahr al-Bared. With current works UNRWA estimate that by mid-2017, 62 percent of families will have returned, leaving 2,264 families still displaced.
“Under the plan we had 100 percent health coverage and families were given $150 in rent subsidies,” he said. “But ever since 2014, the aid has steadily decreased. We no longer receive rent subsidies and now our health coverage is being threatened.”
Darkazally attributed the cutbacks to a lack of funds. “Because we ran out of money, we had to stop this,” she said.
Yet Assadi agreed delays were not solely financial. “There is also the Lebanese political climate to take into account,” he said. “Building takes time and has to pass through a number of government agencies and ultimately goes all the way to the Cabinet and the prime minister. The fact that the Cabinet was crippled and not meeting … really delaying the work.” The current political climate is also a factor that Darkazally raised.
Marwan Abdel-Ali, a member of the Committee to Reconstruct Nahr al-Bared attributed the delay to the complexity of the undertaking and the emergence of unforeseen obstacles. “They had a strategic plan in place … but just because you planned it in a certain way that does not mean it would happen exactly like that,” he told The Daily Star. “For example as they were clearing the rubble they found an archeological site … and that delayed work for three months.”
Assadi also attributed the delay to alleged corruption within UNRWA. “They are the ones to be held responsible,” he said. “There is systematic administrative and financial corruption in UNRWA and it is coming at our expense.”
Addressing these allegations, Darkazally said that they have systems in place to ensure that the buildings are constructed to both Lebanese and international standards and that any UNRWA contractor or worker found to be violating the rules is dismissed and action taken against them.
Other facets of the operation that have caused delays are technical and logistical issues, which are being addressed in the new committee. Although after all this time, Abdel-Ali doesn’t expect a resolution soon.
UNRWA has proposed three options for the completion of the rebuilding effort. They currently estimate that the total reconstruction will cost $345 million, of which $208 has been received from donors, leaving a shortfall of $137.
The first option is to continue as they are and build new areas when funds are available, meaning the reconstruction will take some time and be reliant on donor countries giving the full $137 million.
The second option is to build the bare skeletons of all the buildings so families can move back, but leave them to do the remaining work themselves. This option is expected to only require an additional $90 million of the $137 million deficit. The last, and least desirable for all parties, is to cut costs through reducing specifications of the plan.
Abdel-Ali believes the ideal solution to be an amalgamation of option one and two. “We have to start somewhere with the implementation … we cannot keep denying people their rights,” he said.
“We’re really trying to be innovative in finding ways of reconstructing the camp in light of the challenges today,” Darkazally said.