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Decades later, some Lebanese can't go home

Shiites' return after '06 war reminds Christians that they're still waiting.

January 02, 2007|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

KFARMATA, LEBANON — As Hala Haddad watched thousands of families return to their towns and villages in southern Lebanon last summer after a devastating war between the Islamic militant group Hezbollah and Israel, she remembered the night she was forced to flee her home.

After bombing intensified over their village, her father summoned Haddad and her four siblings to leave everything behind and run away. An 11-year-old then, she had to walk for miles, as her tiny, slippered feet swelled with pain.

That was 23 years ago, as fighting raged between leftist Druze factions and Israeli-backed Christian militias during Lebanon's brutal civil war. Haddad hasn't seen her hometown since.

Unlike the Shiite Muslim population of the south during the recent conflict, Haddad and members of hundreds of other Christian families were never able to go back to their homes and properties in Kfarmata, a picturesque town overlooking Beirut from the Mount Lebanon range.

"I have forgiven, but I still have many questions. With all the crimes that were perpetrated, the civil war cannot be forgotten like this," Haddad, now a 34-year-old journalist, said with a defiant look. "A real social reconciliation process has never taken place in the mountains to secure our return."

Once a symbol of coexistence, with Christians and Druze living side by side, Kfarmata is home today to about 5,000 people, only Druze. In what used to be the village's Christian neighborhood, the roads are lined with the rubble of stone houses, abandoned since the early 1980s.

The few remaining residences in the neighborhood are occupied by Druze, a close-knit religious minority that has time and again played a major political role in Lebanon. The sites where the two churches of the village once stood are covered today with wild plants. Even the cemetery is full of busted tombstones.

As millions of dollars in aid funds have poured into Lebanon over the last several months to help Shiites rebuild homes destroyed during the war last summer, discontent and frustration have been expressed by Christians who say they never received enough compensation for properties damaged during the civil war.

In 1993, a special ministry was established to help Christian refugees secure their rights and to assist them financially in their return to their homes and property in the abandoned Mount Lebanon villages.

At that time, it was a priority for the country to foster national reconciliation among its various confessional groups and to bury for good the years of bloody fighting.

The Ministry of the Displaced was responsible for the return of about 40,000 families to 157 villages in the Mount Lebanon range. Although Christians and Druze warmly hugged and made up in nationally televised ceremonies, the rate of return is estimated today at about 17%.

Cesar Abou Khalil, a political activist with the Free Patriotic Movement, a major Christian party headed by once-exiled Gen. Michel Aoun, said successive Lebanese governments since the end of the 1975-90 civil war had botched the return of Christian refugees to the mountains.

"Four times the budget initially allocated for the displaced was spent, and still the return has not happened," Abou Khalil said. "Can someone tell us where all the money went?

"Millions of dollars were squandered for years without any accountability," he said, accusing officials responsible for overseeing the displaced of corruption. "Druze families were paid sometimes five or six times more than the amount they were supposed to get in order to vacate the Christians' homes when many Christian families did not receive enough money."

Since its creation, the Ministry of the Displaced has been under the control of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the main players in "the war of Mount Lebanon."

Jumblatt has repeatedly denied allegations of corruption in the distribution of funds to the displaced and challenged his political rivals to audit the financial records of the ministry.

"The government did not adopt a concrete policy to attract the displaced to go back," said Elias Abou Assi, a political science professor at St. Joseph University in Beirut. "There were never sustainable development plans for these regions."

Only recently, when large sums were promised to Shiites who suffered from last summer's conflict, did authorities show interest in bringing to a close the file of the displaced of the Mount Lebanon villages to appease unhappy voices in the Christian community.

"In the past weeks, we formed a joint committee of Christian and Druze natives from Kfarmata to accompany the final return of the displaced," said Fouad Khabbaz, the Druze mayor of the town. He said that he had received promises from the ministry that the necessary funds would be available this year.

Meanwhile, Haddad and her family are waiting, with little hope of getting their property back.

"There are people occupying our home in Kfarmata today," she said. "It is our sacred right to return to our land."

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