Rebuilding Lebanon

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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“The village of Bhamdoun resembles a ghost town. Houses stand, but they have been so badly damaged no one could possibly live in them,” wrote Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M., following her December visit to Lebanon with Msgr. Robert L. Stern.

“Our Pontifical Mission staff spoke of the terrible, vengeful destruction inflicted here by the Druze against the Christians and the destruction the Christians unleashed on the vineyards and orchards of the Muslims.… Now these same groups are expected to move back to the village, to try to forgive and forget the recent past. This does not happen easily…that is the curse of the war years.”

For nearly two decades foreign governments and movements supported a bloody fratricidal war that destroyed Lebanon’s economy, government and infrastructure. Throughout that war, in the absence of a functioning government, our Beirut office carried out emergency relief operations, provided medical care, shelter, home repair and equipment, and rehabilitated social welfare institutions such as churches, schools and child-care centers.

Fighting was especially brutal in the villages and rural areas. Churches and mosques were destroyed, often deliberately. Only the shells of buildings remained; even the frames of doors and windows were removed. Houses and apartment buildings were bull-dozed. Grape vines and olive trees, their fruit the staple crops of most Lebanese farmers, were burned. Fields were pock-marked with shells and mortar blasts.

Thousands of farmers and villagers fled their ancestral homes with little more than the shirts on their backs. Many fled with their families to Cyprus, Canada or South America. Others migrated to the relative safety of Beirut. This massive exodus left many rural areas nearly deserted.

In certain areas refugees who fled one village settled in the homes of those who escaped before them. Now that peace has been restored many people are returning to their native villages to find squatters occupying their family homes.

“I’m not talking about an overnight or week-long occupancy,” Sister Christian continued. “In many instances these ‘new tenants’ have been living in someone else’s house for 10 years or more. They have repaired and rebuilt them. They have assumed ‘ownership.’ But now that the true owners are returning, where do you put an elderly couple, frail and without relatives, who have been living there for 14 years?”

Lebanon’s postwar government has initiated a program to resettle and house displaced families in their native villages. The government is coordinating its efforts with international relief agencies to maximize efficiency and minimize red tape.

In 1993, CNEWA received a $1.5 million matching grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for our Beirut office’s village resettlement program. Three major activities were undertaken in the first year (October 1993 - October 1994) of the administration of the grant:

• To clarify our focus and to assure proper screening of villages and projects, a survey of 53 villages in the regions of Aley, Baabda, Bint Jbeil, East Saida and the Shouf was conducted. Villages selected for assistance demonstrated reconciliation with other confessional groups, legal occupation and the village’s proximity to urban areas. Eighty projects were identified.

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