Palestinians return 'home' to smashed refugee camps
Rashadiya, Israeli-held southern Lebanon
Ahmed Hallak returned home last week to the banana plantation and orange grove in the gently rolling hills south of Tyre.
Children, women, and old men ducked out of the tin and stone remnants of houses and edged past smoldering piles of rubble in this once-teeming Palestinian refugee camp to greet the young man.
Ahmed, strongly built and handsome, has older eyes than his 18 years, and at least for the moment lacks the ready smile that so characterizes people of the Middle East. He had been to Israel for the first time in his life - taken there by force.
Ahmed had been a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and at times had carried a gun. But just before the Israeli Army came into Rashadiya, after five days of heavy bombardment, Ahmed and others like him threw away their weapons, changed into civilian clothes, and fled out of the refugee camps. They lived in the open in fruit groves for two weeks.
On June 15, with the Israeli Army now in firm control of Rashadiya, Ahmed was arrested, blindfolded, and taken to Israel. Of his treatment there he alleges:
''Some people were beaten with chains, but us they treated well. They wanted to know if I was with the PLO. I told them the truth, and I was released. . . .''
A bus returned Ahmed to Tyre July 8. He walked five miles to Rashadiya to find that the refugee camp had been devastated. Most of the men were missing - killed in action, escaped to the last PLO stronghold in Beirut, or, like Ahmed, detained by the Israeli occupiers of this area.
While Ahmed was held in Israel, other residents of Rashadiya were allowed to return to the camp. This was a change in Israel's post-invasion plans: Originally no refugees were to have been allowed back, the camps being seen as hotbeds of PLO activity. But ultimately it became apparent to the Israelis that these chronically displaced Palestinians and others like them inhabiting crowded refugee camps in southern Lebanon have no place else to go.
Two weeks ago, 370 families (2,000 people) were back at Rashadiya, subsisting as they could among the ruins. By late last week, Red Cross worker Max Oser said that 570 new families (another 4,000 people) were living in Rashadiya. Before Israel overran the camp, an estimated 15,000 people lived here and worked the fields.
The story is much the same in Ain al Hilweh in Sidon. Israeli bombing in early June damaged or destroyed virtually every building of a camp that once housed 18,000. Many residents fled to Beirut or the Bekaa Valley. Those who were scattered in the hills nearby have begun to return, having nothing better than this rubble to return to. The Red Cross estimates 5,000 people are back.
In both Palestinian camps, the Red Cross is distributing food, doctors are dealing with injuries, and residents are somehow living among the pummeled remains.
While emergency aid does seem to be coping with immediate needs, public sanitation appears to be a problem. Refuse is not collected, and the people here , too, are living in the open. In some instances (such as in Techmilia), bodies were still to be found amid the debris last week.
Like Rashadiya, Ain al Hilweh today is peopled mostly with children, women, and old men. The younger men have been detained by the Israelis and in some cases by the right-wing Phalangist forces who have been establishing themselves in the city.
Sidon's Mayor Ahmed Kalash says his city alone needs habitation for 40,000 to 60,000, of whom 20,000 are Palestinians. So great has been the damage to his city that as of last week (five weeks after the Israelis invaded the country and began to hit Sidon) he was not able to estimate rebuilding costs.
Tyre's Greek Catholic Archbishop George Haddad, the main civic leader left in a city whose leaders all fled in the first hours of the invasion, estimates 26, 000 Palestinians were displaced in the invasion, most of them from Rashadiya and from Tyre's Baas neighborhood. Structural damage to houses, schools, hospitals, and commercial buildings is believed to be around $60 million, according to the archbishop.
Peter McPherson, director of the United States Agency for International Development (AID) visited devastated southern Lebanon late last week and promised local leaders that the US government is committed to helping the area recover.
He specifically said this included Palestinians, who in the past have not benefited directly from US financial aid (but have indirectly through United Nations agencies). The US has made $12 million available immediately and Congress is in the process of appropriating $50 million more.
These and other contributions should help put southern Lebanon back together. But the scars, some local leaders believe, will remain long after the rubble has been cleared away and the dead buried.
''You can take the guns away from the young Palestinians,'' Archbishop Haddad said, ''but the bitterness remains. They have many needs today. One of the greatest, I feel, is to find a country for these people to live in.''
That was Ahmed Hallak's need, too. He had returned to a camp in a country where he is not a citizen. The camp was in ruins. But he simply had no place else to go.