ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Rebuilding Lebanon

Slowly, with the help of CNEWA, Lebanon restores war–ravaged homes, villages and the lives of its people.

“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.

• Housing reconstruction was emphasized for the first half of the year. However we stressed self-help to minimize the dependence that is often generated by humanitarian assistance. Thus far, more than 1,000 families (5,000 individuals) received support to restore their native homes. Although most of those who have returned belong to one faith group, the resettlement process helped build new multiconfessional communities. Laborers and skilled technicians from surrounding villages assisted in the village reconstruction efforts, which also increased employment opportunities in existing locales.

• Our program also included the rehabilitation of village infrastructures. These projects included the rehabilitation of electric and potable water networks, irrigation systems, agricultural roads, public facilities, retaining walls and sewers. When possible, labor, supervision, technical assistance, machinery, equipment and material, information and other project expenditures were contributed voluntarily by the beneficiaries.

The refugee’s longing for one’s native land may not be enough of a draw, however.

“Where will people work and live? There are no stores, no industries, no sources of employment,” Sister Christian added.

“These villagers left as farmers. Now their land is spoilt and they lack the skills to compete with workers or products imported from Israel and Syria.

“Surprisingly though, in village after village the first project to be built or restored was the village church. I questioned this – there were so many other more urgent needs. When he first arrived in Lebanon, Archbishop Pablo Puente, the Apostolic Nuncio, questioned this as well: ‘Why a church when so many are without a roof?’ But he soon learned why, as have I.

“The village church is the heart of village life. Life begins here. Life’s joys and sorrows are celebrated and commemorated here. And life’s journey ends here.

“Villagers insisted that the church be repaired first. And if the church is repaired, then schools will be started. And if classes begin, people are sure to return. The Lebanese place a tremendous value on education.”

Originally we proposed assistance to 25 villages and 500 families. However with combined USAID and CNEWA funding our Beirut office has revitalized 74 villages and 16,000 families – a significant increase.

One of the villages assisted by our resettlement program is Naameh, which is located in the Shouf about 12 miles from Beirut. The residents of this village have fled twice: in 1976, after an Israeli force invaded, and during the mid-80s when the Druze militia attacked.

To encourage about 50 families to resettle in their native village we implemented housing, potable water and irrigation projects.

Lebanon, unlike the rest of the Middle East, has plenty of water. However the war destroyed much of the infrastructure needed to pipe this water to the villages and their fields. That is where we have stepped in, providing pipes, gate valves and other supplies.

Bhamdoun is a large village in the Aley region, also located about 12 miles from Beirut. Before the war more than 7,000 people considered Bhamdoun home. Agriculture was their primary source of income, although the town also boasted several fine hotels and restaurants. But in 1983 the Druze, with their Syrian allies, fought the Christian militia to occupy the village.

When the dust settled a few villagers began to return in 1993. They found their homes destroyed, their church leveled, their fields torched.

In early December Msgr. Stern and Sister Christian visited the home of Tannous Moussa Matta, his wife, Saydeh, and their son, Maurice:

“We climbed a flight of stairs to their new apartment. A Turkish rug covered the floor. They had an old television, and simple Christmas ornaments decorated the room. It was a cold, damp day and all of us were dressed for warmth. The stove was the only source of heat.”

“The furnishings were a mishmash of items, a piece from the past there, a new piece here, a family treasure over there. But Mr. and Mrs. Matta were happy to be home. During the war they sought refuge in many places, now they were home.”

“Maurice has done most of the work. The repair work was well done: the plastered walls are painted, aluminum window frames and glass windows have been installed and the stonework has been restored.”

“As you leave the apartment, a sealed gate prevents one from entering the remains of another apartment across the hall – a graphic reminder of how much has been accomplished in Lebanon by our people and how much more remains to be done.”

Michael J.L. La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East.

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