ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Rebuilding Southern Lebanon

Liberated five years ago, much work remains to be done

The road leading to the village of Deir Mimas in southern Lebanon is serpentine and steep, hidden by groves of olive trees that spread out for miles. The predominantly Greek Orthodox village relies on olive oil as its main source of income. Throughout Lebanon, Deir Mimas’ product is known as the “Bordeaux” of olive oils – pressed from the fruit of trees dating to biblical times. For many years, however, the rich potential of Deir Mimas’s 100,000 olive trees went nearly untapped, as the town and the district of Marjayoun in which it lies were occupied by Israeli troops. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 after several years of cross-border attacks with Palestinian fighters who had established a base of operations in southern Lebanon. Though Israel would ultimately withdraw from Beirut, it held onto major portions of the south for more than 18 years.Cut off from the rest of Lebanon and the outside world, Deir Mimas’s olive oil production slowed dramatically. Many residents sought work in Israel, which offered more jobs and higher wages.

In May 2000, when Israel withdrew, Deir Mimas was a shell of its former self. Many residents had emigrated and its infrastructure was in disrepair. The town literally stank. Sewage had polluted the drinking water and soil and threatened its olive trees.

“Sewage was leaking from under the houses onto the roads, so that the smell was constant,” said Samer Nakfour, who heads the Deir Mimas Cooperative, which oversees the town’s infrastructure.

The Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, was one of the first organizations to assist in the revitalization of southern Lebanon. In Deir Mimas alone, the Pontifical Mission has completed five projects, including a sewage plant that serves 95 percent of the town.“By far, this development has been the most important,” Mr. Nakfour said. “We live on a rocky hill and the leakage would go straight onto the road. Of course, it has reduced pollution of the olive trees as well. So many problems have been solved.”

The Pontifical Mission has also contributed to the revival of the town’s olive oil industry. With funding from the United States Agency for International Development, the mission’s Beirut-based staff has helped build agricultural roads, donated a tractor and built a factory for bottling and labeling the olive oil.

“The people here are supported entirely by the production of olive oil,” Mr. Nakfour said. “Because of these projects we have new oil presses. The trees are easier to get to, and all of our oil is being sold.”The Pontifical Mission has been working in Lebanon since 1949. Its initial mandate, given by Pope Pius XII, was to assist Palestinian refugees. The work expanded in Lebanon to include relief efforts during the civil war (1975-1991) and recovery efforts after the conflict ended.

The Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 opened up a new territory desperately in need of development. In recent years, dozens of international nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have assisted villages in the area.The Lebanese government, however, has been slow to assert its control over the newly liberated territory, resisting international calls to deploy the Lebanese Army in the south. Thus, both militarily and politically, most of the south is controlled by Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party.

In the absence of government control, villages are left to fend for themselves, though some degree of cooperation is achieved through the work of the Council for the South, a public agency that works with villages, community groups and NGOs.

In many ways, the challenges facing southern Lebanon are not unique. Much of the country has yet to recover from the ravages of civil war and overcome the political obstacles and sectarian tensions that have plagued Lebanon even prior to its independence in 1943.

Sectarian tension in the south was exacerbated by continued warfare between Lebanese Muslim militias and Lebanese Christians serving in the South Lebanese Army (SLA), which was equipped and trained by Israel.

Though some Muslims had served in the SLA or had worked in Israeli factories, it was the Christians who had filled most of the positions of authority. With the Israeli withdrawal, most of the SLA fighters fled to Israel or were jailed.

Nearby Muslim communities, meanwhile, shunned their Christian neighbors, whom they branded as “collaborators.“

Though many had simply sought medical treatment in Israel or had taken jobs with the Israelis to feed their families, they feared that such distinctions would be lost.

Thus, many Christians who had never served in the SLA fled too. (Most of those who served in the SLA and were jailed after the Israeli withdrawal have been released, while many Christians who fled to Israel have returned to Lebanon.)

Recently, relations have improved between the south’s Muslims, most of whom are Shiites, and Christians, most of whom are Maronites. Today, the Pontifical Mission is operating in several Muslim communities in the south, helping to build solid waste plants in Kherbet Selm, Chakra and Kabrikha, and Shiite villages in Nabatiyeh.

“As long as there are local partners willing to work with us, we are ready to help them,” said Issam Bishara, the Pontifical Mission’s Regional Director for Lebanon and Syria.

Many Shiites have encouraged the Pontifical Mission’s assistance, said Michel Constantin, the Pontifical Mission’s Senior Project Manager in Lebanon. “Our projects in the Shiite villages are running very smoothly. We have never had a problem just because we are Christians.”

But while Muslim communities can draw on their own religious charities for aid, many Christian villages are more dependent on the Pontifical Mission for assistance. Following the Israeli withdrawal, the population of the village of Qleiaa dropped dramatically due to the flight of SLA militia and their families. Out of 5,000 residents, only 1,000 remained.

“What was left of the families were women and children with no source of income,” said Mr. Constantin.

“If the Pontifical Mission didn’t take care of us, no one else would have come,” said Milad Nimr, who heads the Qleiaa Cooperative. “The government did some infrastructure work – water, phones and tax collection – but did nothing to create jobs or extend loans for local investment.”

Members of the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut staff met with the Qleiaa Cooperative and embarked on an ambitious development program. The agency subsidized a cattle farm, an olive press, irrigation systems and agricultural roads and equipment, including a tractor and harvesting machines.

“People were very surprised when the tractor arrived,” Mr. Nimr recalled. “We weren’t used to people helping us.”The Pontifical Mission also helped build a solid waste plant and a sewer plant in Qleiaa. The plant is tucked behind a mountain pass.

Here, the stench was a sign of success. Workers sifted through heaps of garbage, separating the organic from the inorganic materials. Organic waste was processed into compost and used as fertilizer, while inorganic waste was recycled. Not everything runs smoothly, however. While the sewage plant was completed a year ago, the government has yet to provide the electricity to make it fully operational.

“There’s only so much we can do without the government,” Mr. Constantin said.

Nonetheless, Qleiaa’s economy and morale have received a significant boost from other sources, including the United Nations Development Program. The UNDP has helped restore the Marjayoun plain, which borders the town. Qleiaa farmers are now the area’s leading growers of grain, cattle feed and fruits and vegetables.

Mr. Bishara hopes the endeavors of the Pontifical Mission and other NGOs will be self-sustaining and prompt larger efforts by local residents. “We don’t claim to resolve the problems of the country,” he said. “We would like to provide a successful pilot project that expands and can be copied.”

Amal Bouhabib reports on Lebanon for ONE magazine.

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