issue 258 - August 1994
Resettling hundreds of thousands of people who fled their homes during the war is a
herculean task. Maria Spiers meets Kamal Feghali, the man at the centre of the action.
A small dapper man waves a ruler at the two men in front of him. They are sheepish, shifting uncomfortably on their feet and looking at their shoes. Around the large room a dozen other people wait, some sitting, some standing, buzzing like bees around a honey-pot. They may have to wait a long time... Kamal Feghali receives between 300 and 400 people a day, from early in the morning until after 10 pm. His job? He works for the Ministry for the Displaced.
Around the large desk a sharp exchange is taking place between three men at the centre of things. The man with the ruler bangs on the floor. The second man is a landlord, the third his tenant. The landlord wants his house back. The tenant has nowhere to go. Kamal Feghali questions them sharply, then picks up his mobile phone. A few short sentences and all is resolved. A new place will be found for the tenant and his family – but it will take a few weeks and the landlord will just have to be patient. They shake hands and the two go off.
A woman comes forward, smartly dressed in black and gold. Her house is occupied by an ex-militia man who refuses to leave despite having been paid by the Ministry to do so. She is told, warmly but firmly, to come back tomorrow.
Then a whole family shuffles forward: tiny, bescarved mother, father, burly son and assorted relatives. They are plainly poor villagers from the mountain area. Like so many others they have made a makeshift home in the ruins of a bombed building. They have been there for five years and now they want to go back home, to their village. They need money to rebuild their houses. Can Mr Feghali give them some? Mr Feghali might, but needs to know more about them first. There are many false claims from people who already have somewhere to live, hoping to get access to the $12,000 given for the reconstruction of houses which have been completely destroyed, or the $7,000 given to those whose homes have been severely damaged.
All this time phones have been ringing constantly. One sounds just like the toy that my own three-year-old son plays with. Another is black, heavy and old-fashioned. A third is a satellite phone – it is easier to call from one side of Beirut to the other via New York than to get through on the rickety and unreliable public system. From time to time Kamal Feghali’s assistants poke their heads round the door to announce yet more visitors.
Most of the supplicants today are Christians from the east side of Beirut. There is supposed to be a national general strike in sympathy with the Palestinians killed in Hebron in Israel. Most of Beirut is taking part, but there will be fewer shops and businesses shut in the Christian East than elsewhere. Because there are fewer people than usual I get my chance with the ruler. Its owner sits down briefly with me for a cup of strong Arabic coffee.
‘In October 1992 a National Fund and a Ministry for the Displaced were created. Walid Jumblatt (the Druze leader) is now the Minister. It followed a big meeting in June, attended by everyone who was anyone, called the National Congress for Displaced People. To date the Fund has had twelve million dollars – five of which have come from private sources.
‘But we are talking about 90,000 families still displaced. That means 450,000 people. There are also huge numbers who have gone abroad. At least half of those remaining are ‘urgent cases’ – families living in appalling and illegal conditions. All need to be rehoused. We can help them to repair their old homes – if they can go back. Or we can help them build new homes if their old ones have been destroyed. This means clearing the ruins and the debris, then setting up the infrastructure without which people won’t go home. So electricity, water, sewerage, roads and also schools are crucial. So is employment.
‘There is no work outside the main cities. Half the population of Lebanon comes to Beirut every day. Everything is centred on Beirut. People we have resettled in their villages are having to leave again to find work. So we are not only dealing with those who have left their homes long ago and want to return. We also have the problem of those who have returned to their homes and have to come back to Beirut.’ An additional problem is that bombing is still going on. In July 1993, refugees fleeing from the Israelis in the south swamped Beirut.
Kamal Feghali knows what he is talking about. His office surveyed some 67,000 families throughout the country. 52 per cent had had their homes totally destroyed, while 27 per cent had homes which were partially destroyed. Forty per cent of the families were illegally occupying their current home, and 12 per cent were living in ruined offices, hotels or shops. Many of the displaced families were having to make do with extremely cramped, overcrowded and insanitary conditions.
At this point Kamal Feghali drains his cold coffee and stands up. The ruler swings again. ‘What I would really like to be able to do is to get former enemies together and reconcile them. Shall I tell you a story? The other week, in this very office, I had people from a mountain village here. The village had been almost totally destroyed and they wanted to go back and rebuild. The only problem was that the village had for years been a mixed one, Christians and Muslims. When the war started it was split down the middle. Neighbour fought neighbour, friend attacked friend.
‘So anyway, there they all were, the representatives of the different groups, different families. The Christians sat here,’ – the ruler waves towards the large black leather sofa that I am sitting on – ‘the Muslims there,’ – the ruler swings round to the other side of the room. ‘They faced each other, glaring. “So what is the problem?” I asked. One old man pointed a quivering finger. “He killed my cow.” The accused stood up in indignation. “Well, you hit my mother! You made her kneel down in front of you and you hit her!” The accusations and insults flew. “It wasn’t me – ask her.” An old woman in black peered short-sightedly across the room. “No, it is true, it wasn’t him. It was his cousin.” It took a long time but eventually apologies also made their way across the room and they all stood up and shook hands.’
Kamal Feghali had obviously been pleased with this particular day’s work. But he can do all-too-little of it. The range of other needs is too pressing, the money too little, the task herculean. Everyone in the room has reason to praise him. And the praise is not just the adulation of sycophants. ‘He really cares about people. He is different from others in power. And he has done many good things,’ says a young Christian woman who has come to get him to sign a paper which will convince the authorities to release money owing to her. Kamal Feghali’s signature is worth a lot.
Meanwhile the man himself is joking with someone who has just entered in a wheelchair. Not only is he disabled, he also has nowhere to live. His visit to the offices is becoming a daily occurrence; his problem is intractable. They both launch into a complicated story about another disabled man who finally shot the man who had disabled him. With a characteristic wry smile Kamal Feghali turns back to me. ‘We have to avoid making the same mistakes that we made in the past. Who knows, perhaps one day I will be called as the ‘expert’ on the displaced to somewhere like Bosnia.’ In the meantime, he has plenty to do here.
The measure of hope
The scene is peaceful, rolling countryside dotted with tiny white villages. It was almost ten years since I had last been here, helping to take essential provisions to those who still remained. Then most had fled. Now they are coming back. The gardens which had been so neatly tended are wild and neglected. But everywhere there are trucks piled with planks of wood or window-frames. Whole families have taken the chance of a day’s holiday to come back and rebuild the houses they left so long ago. Some of the younger ones have never been here before.
We drive as far as we can, right up to a road so overgrown it looks like a footpath. Barbed wire blocks our way. My friend speaks for the first time in a while, her voice clipped: ‘That’s Lahd country, the South Lebanon Army; you can just see their outpost on the mountain. Few people are allowed in or out – the Israelis control it all. Let’s go back now.’
We drive to see a family who have agreed to speak to me. Their house must have been large once; there is a huge reception area that they have been unable to repair because one whole wall is unsafe, so we go in the back door and sit in a small blue-painted room with pictures of the Virgin Mary on the wall and a black cast iron fire in the centre. They want no photos and no names and are jumpy when I take my camera out on their roof – the eyes of the Israelis can see a long way and exact their retribution in Lahd bullets.
Once inside the house we sip strong coffee in small cups while they tell their story. The uncle, who is slowly rebuilding his house nearby brick by brick, speaks first and fiercely: ‘We were the last to leave. It was the middle of the night, and our neighbours came and knocked on our door, shouting urgently that we had to go; we could hear guns very close. We left with nothing. If we’d been able to take things with us we would have been all right. But we left with nothing and now we’ve come back with nothing. We thought we’d be gone a few weeks or months. It has been ten years now.’
His sister interjects: ‘We came back to start working on the house three years ago, as soon as the peace was announced. My husband came first, in July 1991. He didn’t recognise our home at first – earth was piled from the ground to the roof to make a barrage. Everything, everything had been stolen, pillaged. The inside was a wreck. It has been a lot of work to rebuild; sometimes I think it is more difficult to rebuild than to start from scratch. We have had money from different sources . But it is still less than half what we really need to rebuild.’
I marvel at their determination. ‘We will continue, though, even if the money dries up. We will stay in a chicken shed if necessary. We will stay whatever happens.’ ‘Yes.’ adds another member of the family. ‘This is the measure of our hope. We have borrowed money to come back.’ The indomitable uncle has the final word before I am ushered out: ‘It is our country, our land. If people had faith in the country there would not have been war. I want to die here, in the land of my ancestors.’
As we travel back through the hills I learn the whole story. The husband was killed by a shell last October. Two brothers have also died during the war. It is this too which must inform the family’s determination to stay and to make a new life: like so many Lebanese, they have little more to lose. We stop on the way to look at a school which will soon be re-opened. A solitary man is digging his garden and already his little patch is green with healthy vegetables.
Nikki van der Gaag