ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

The Long Road Home

Lebanese rebuild their villages damaged by war

Reconstruction is a much-used word in Washington these days, with politicians debating how many months and dollars the rebuilding of Iraq will require. The reconstruction of a poor, war-tossed country in one of the most volatile regions of the world, however, defies quick solutions.

Nowhere has this been more true than in Lebanon. Some 13 years after the end of its bloody civil war the country is still grappling to overcome the scars of 15 years of destruction and chaos. The fighting, which took more than 100,000 lives, not only upset Lebanon’s precarious political order and fragile economy, it also tore at the multiconfessional fabric of the nation.

Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shiite houses were destroyed, churches and mosques desecrated and whole villages wrecked. The displacement of nearly half a million from their ancestral homes aggravated sectarian tensions and threatened the extinction of village life in Mount Lebanon and its southern slopes, the Chouf, which for centuries had cultivated Lebanon’s unique role and identity as a refuge for religious minorities.

The resilience of the displaced has been remarkable despite the broken promises of resettlement by successive postwar governments. The steadfastness of the displaced has been matched and rewarded by CNEWA’s operational arm in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, which has been active in Lebanon for over 50 years.

The Pontifical Mission, which provided emergency relief during the darkest days of the war, has seen its role evolve to meet the reconstruction challenges facing the country in the postwar era. Having provided shelter, food and medical care to refugees who fled their villages in Mount Lebanon to escape bitter fighting in the 1980’s, the relief and development agency of the Holy See has now turned its attention to resettling the displaced in their former homes and villages.

It is conducting and supporting rehabilitation work, micro-credit programs and large infrastructure projects. The work is being done in the belief that the key to Lebanon’s future is restoring its illustrious past, one built on the steep slopes and in the lush valleys of Mount Lebanon.

An uneasy peace came in 1990 with the signing of the Taif Accord, named after the city in Saudi Arabia where it was signed. The formal disbanding of most wartime militias was a welcome end to years of bloodshed, but rebuilding the country would require more than a political agreement.

More than 78,000 homes had been destroyed and some 450,000 people, nearly one out of seven Lebanese, were internally displaced. Some 86 percent of the displaced came from Mount Lebanon, where intense sectarian violence exploded following the Israeli withdrawal from the Chouf in 1983.

An estimated 350,000 residents of Mount Lebanon alone were displaced in what became known as the “Mountain War” between the militias of the Christian Lebanese Forces and Druze Progressive Socialist Party. The militias were battling to fill the vacuum left by the Israelis, who had invaded the country in 1982 to fight Palestinian militants. The Chouf, whose picturesque stone villages and cedar forests Christians and Druze had shared since the 16th century, was the scene of tragedies for both communities.

“Thousands of families were displaced, hundreds were slaughtered and mostly all the Christian villages, including houses, churches, shops, institutions and schools, were looted and then bulldozed,” said Issam Bishara, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. “Most of the Christians killed or displaced were not politically opposed to the area’s traditional Druze leadership, but confessional rage did not spare anyone.”

Displacement has also led to a number of secondary problems, including the segregation of villages and areas along religious lines, economic imbalances, disrupted labor markets and the neglect of agricultural lands.

The resettlement of those refugees has been a priority of every Lebanese government since the end of the war. The Taif Accord declared return necessary for reconciliation and peace. The accord also established the right of every Lebanese to return home and pledged financial support to rebuild homes and villages.

In 1993 the government created the Ministry for the Displaced to rehabilitate infrastructure and housing and energize rural economies. The Central Fund for the Displaced was also created to provide the financial resources, offering up to $20,000 for repairs to damaged homes.

The government has allocated more than $1 billion toward resettlement, but the first decade of the policy saw most public resources directed toward compensating squatters, who were paid to vacate their illegal dwellings.

Government funds for those who had seen their homes damaged or completely destroyed were to come in three installations. The first round of payments was made, with beneficiaries – mostly Christian – building the foundations for new homes. But only a few families received a second payment and the great majority halted construction, leaving the Chouf dotted with concrete and steel skeletons of would-be homes.

Public infrastructure projects have also been hampered by a chronic shortage of funds, with Lebanon facing a $30 billion public debt and pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to slash state spending. “The government planned to accompany the reconstruction of villages with substantial infrastructure projects,” said Mr. Bishara. “Unfortunately, none of this happened and the Christian population in the Chouf has continued to decline from 60 percent of the total in 1975 to less than 10 percent in 2003.”

To make matters worse, those refugees who did not leave the country face overcrowding in their temporary homes in Beirut and other large Lebanese cities, where disease and social tension among unfamiliar neighbors are common. An estimated 300,000 – almost 10 percent of Lebanon’s population – remain displaced.

With the government struggling to resettle the refugees, the Pontifical Mission has stepped up its efforts with far-reaching village revitalization programs.

During the war, the Pontifical Mission focused its energies on the emergency needs of the refugees. With many of the displaced crowding uninhabitable buildings along the war’s violent fault lines, the relief agency worked to place families in adequate and safe housing.

But with peace came a period of re-evaluation for the Pontifical Mission, which decided to focus on resettlement in the Chouf and the rest of Mount Lebanon.

“Following the government’s decision to resettle the displaced, the Pontifical Mission became a pioneer in helping families return,” said Mr. Bishara. “New programs were launched for the resettlement of these families in coordination with other nongovernmental organizations.”

The first years after the Taif Accord, the agency established a program to provide refugees with housing in their native villages. It offered grants to rehabilitate damaged homes in an effort to avoid dependency and create job opportunities across confessional lines hardened by war.

Adequate housing and home repair were desperately needed in the war-ravaged villages, but it quickly became clear that resettlement would also require reviving the villages as centers of rural life. Many lacked the basic infrastructure and economic activity to sustain their previous populations. Returning Christians were also adamant about rebuilding destroyed churches.

The many early successes of the Pontifical Mission’s village revitalization program led to larger ambitions, with the Pontifical Mission collaborating with the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID has provided the papal agency with millions of dollars since 1993. The Pontifical Mission also cooperated with other nongovernmental organizations, such as Mercy Corps, Caritas, Creative Associates and the Y.M.C.A., to coordinate its economically and environmentally sustainable projects.

The funds from USAID have allowed the Pontifical Mission to build much-needed electricity and sewage networks, water treatment plants, irrigation canals and agricultural roads. The villages chosen for these projects were selected on the basis of their proximity to large urban areas, where most Lebanese are employed. In the Chouf, some 30 minutes by car from Beirut, the Pontifical Mission chose projects that would serve multiple villages and thereby strengthen the integration and cooperation of villages cut off from one another by the war.

The Pontifical Mission has also sponsored projects to revitalize village economies. Thousands of fruit trees have been purchased to replace groves and orchards burned or uprooted by militias during the war. The trees are also helping farmers reclaim terraced hillsides that have suffered from mortar fire, neglect and erosion.

The Pontifical Mission’s Micro Enterprise Credit Program has also helped revive village life by providing local entrepreneurs with seed money for small businesses. The program, launched in 1997, has spurred farmers and merchants to invest their energy and money in their villages rather than seeking opportunities in Beirut. Loans range from $1,000 to $5,000 and the Pontifical Mission’s staff stays in contact with beneficiaries, often providing technical, accounting and marketing advice. More than half a million dollars has already been distributed to entrepreneurs working in agriculture, trade, construction and services.

All in all, the Pontifical Mission has worked to revitalize more than 200 villages across Lebanon. In Mount Lebanon, it has assisted 1,427 families in 74 villages with funds from the Italian Episcopal Conference, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem, Misereor and USAID. The people of Faaoura, Majdel al Meoush, Bireh, Dmit, Kfarmis, Serjbal and Deir Dourit – to name just a few of the many villages in the Chouf – have all benefited from the Pontifical Mission’s work. As villages are suffering not only in Mount Lebanon, but across the country, the Pontifical Mission has also sponsored projects in the Akkar region in the north and the former Israeli-occupied zone in the south.

In September 2003 USAID awarded the Pontifical Mission a $4.8 million grant for waste management and water treatment projects in rural Lebanon. The grant will benefit more than 150,000 Lebanese in 97 villages and towns across the country. The projects will provide much-needed infrastructure to 12 villages in the Upper Chouf, including nine waste water treatment plants and one for solid waste.

“The Pontifical Mission’s strategy has always been based on an integrated process where aid activities are coordinated to make a real difference in the lives of the displaced and make the damaged areas more viable,” said Mr. Bishara. “But needs are overwhelming.”

The suspension of most government projects and funds for reconstruction has made the task more difficult.

But however long the road, the Pontifical Mission continues to believe that sustainable rural development remains the only hope for rebuilding debt-ridden Lebanon.

“Revitalizing villages,” Mr. Bishara said, “will facilitate the return of the displaced, encourage reconciliation and return our country to the life it knew.”

A long, hard slog, perhaps, but reconstruction is never quick or easy.

David Sheehan, who worked in Beirut as a journalist for two years, is the Assistant Editor of CNEWA WORLD.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Bienestar para el Cercano Oriente Católico en español?

Vee página en español