Matt Nash

No direction home

For some it’s as though the civil war never ended.

In a handful of villages in the southern half of Mount Lebanon, there has been no reconciliation. Nearly 30 years after a particularly savage chapter in the 15-year conflict many people cannot even enter their ancestral villages, let alone reclaim or rebuild their homes.

The civil war displaced an estimated 600,000 Lebanese, and the process of returning them has been fraught with corruption and mismanagement. Following the war, the government established a Ministry of the Displaced with a fund of nearly $500 million tasked with helping people reconcile, rebuild and return home.

Its job was supposed to be finished in three years.

“At the end of the war, we needed to complete 25 reconciliations” in villages throughout the country where fighting displaced people, Fadi Abi Allam, a consultant to Minister of the Displaced Akram Chehayeb, told NOW Lebanon.

“We have finished 22 of them,” he said. Abi Allam refused to provide figures of how many people returned or how many people are still waiting to return. Exact statistics, in fact, are hard to find.

Abi Allam said that since 1992, 20,558 homes were rebuilt and 85,565 were repaired. He did not, however, have figures for how many were destroyed or damaged in total or how many people have claims for money pending.

In 2004, the Ministry said 16,750 Lebanese were still internally displaced since the civil war, but some dispute this. Today, the remaining reconciliations involve the Christian and Druze communities. The two fought bitterly in the Chouf Mountain – mostly in the Baabda, Aley and Chouf districts – with thousands of people fleeing their homes as fighters on both sides committed massacre after massacre.

Representatives of the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces told NOW Lebanon that only 17 to 20 percent of the displaced have returned to their homes. This figure is also widely cited in media reports and based, apparently, on a survey conducted a few years ago.

Cesar Abou Khalil, the FPM’s person responsible for returning the displaced, told NOW Lebanon that the ministry has spent $1.67 billion since 1992, while Elie Baraghid, LF leader Samir Geagea’s chief of staff, said $800 million has been spent. Abi Allam would not say.

Everyone, however, agrees that in the past the money was mostly squandered. Politicians used the fund – administrated by the prime minister and not the minister of the displaced in an effort to combat corruption – much like a personal piggy bank, paying off voters near election time.

The fund was also abused by people falsely claiming displacement or damage to their homes. As money leaked out in various directions, many whose homes were destroyed or damaged simply rebuilt or repaired on their own, receiving limited or no payments from the fund.

Furthermore, the entire issue has long been politicized and manipulated for reasons that have little to do with returning people to their homes. Much to the chagrin of many Christians, the ministry has almost exclusively been headed by a member of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party.

During the immediate post-war period, when Syrian troops ensured Damascus’ tight grip on Lebanon, Christians frequently lambasted the ministry for doing nothing and squandering money. Something of a turning point came in 2001 when Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir visited Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in the Chouf.

By 2006, Michel Aoun was dismissing the trip and calling for better treatment of the displaced as he was locked in a political struggle with Jumblatt, the patriarch and other major Christian politicians. A few years later, however, the tables had turned.

Shortly after Jumblatt announced he was leaving the March 14 coalition in August 2009, he met with Aoun, and they started talking up the need to finally close the file of those displaced from the civil war. In February of this year, Aoun paid a visit to Jumblatt in the Chouf, and another promise to return the remaining displaced was made.

Problems remain for returnees in the villages of Aabay, Binnay and Ain Rfail in the Aley district; Brieh in the Chouf district; and Kfar Selouane and Jouar al-Haouz in Baabda. In Baabda, the LF’s Baraghid told NOW Lebanon that most people have returned to the mixed Druze-Christian villages, but animosities run high, reconciliation was never achieved and many residents are still awaiting compensation for damage to their homes.

In Aley and the Chouf, however, displaced residents cannot even enter their villages. The ministry estimates it will take another three years and $200 million to close these last few files, and everyone interviewed for this article said talks are ongoing among all concerned parties. Hopes are high that given the current spirit of national unity, the process will move smoothly from now on.

Everyone interviewed for this article, however, said that truly solving the problem of the displaced will involve improving infrastructure and the education and health care systems in the affected villages. Such an undertaking, Abi Allam said, is far outside the purview of the Ministry of the Displaced.