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Palestinian refugees who fled their North Lebanon camp as the Lebanese army battled Islamic radicals holed up inside vow they will return to their homes in the camp now that the militant group is crushed.
Some 30,000 refugees fled Nahr el-Bared, which was pummeled by intense artillery and tank fire since the army began battling Fatah Islam insurgents on May 20.
Many refugees expressed joy this week when the bloody three-month fighting finally ended with the militants' defeat, allowing their eventual return to their war-devastated houses. But sadness was also widespread over the loss of property and, in some cases, loved ones.
"We want to return to Nahr el-Bared to live even in a tent amid the destruction, rubble, bombs and booby traps," Intisar Younis, a 50-year-old mother of eight, said Monday at one of four UN-run schools in Beddawi, another refugee camp nearby where most Nahr el-Bared residents have fled.
"The return to Nahr el-Bared is tantamount to an infant's return to his mother's arms," she said. "We want to embrace the camp despite the destruction."
Younis is no stranger to new places. Her family fled its home in Palestine when Israel was established in 1948. She was later chased from the Tel Zaatar refugee camp near Beirut when Lebanese Christian militiamen overran it in 1976 during Lebanon's civil war. In 1982, she fled again after Christian militiamen massacred Palestinian civilians in the Sabra refugee camp during the First Lebanon War.
Younis said she was forced to flee Nahr el-Bared a month into the fighting after her house was hit by shellfire. The family moved in with friends, but then fled the camp altogether when their house was also hit.
"This is the fourth time we have been displaced from our home," she said, her voice cracking with sadness.
Although the Nahr el-Bared fighting was between Fatah Islam and the Lebanese army, Palestinian refugees paid the price once again, a result of their plight and the lawlessness that reigns in refugee camps where they have self control and Lebanese government has no jurisdiction under a 1969 agreement.
The plight of Palestinian refugees has been one of the burning issues in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948. In some countries, like Lebanon where the Palestinians make up about 10 percent of the population, the case has added a burden on the political and demographic makeup. During the decades, Palestinian guerrillas have fought government forces both in Lebanon and Jordan.
Since crushing the al-Qaida-linked Fatah Islam earlier this week, the Lebanese army has said it will not let anyone into Nahr el-Bared before the camp is completely cleared of gunmen, unexploded shells, mines, and booby traps. The government, meanwhile, has promised to rebuild the devastated area.
Beddawi, with a population of 18,000, was already cramped before the refugees from Nahr el-Bared began packing into schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency, mosques, and the houses of relatives here.
In the schools, about five families, comprising 30 to 50 people, have to share a single classroom.
In one classroom, unclean mattresses, pillows and blankets were piled in a corner along with kitchenware, water bottles and plastic bags containing clothes. Curtains were hung to separate families for some privacy.
In another classroom where some 60 people are staying, men sleep out on balconies to make room for women and their daughters, said Rizk Wehbeh, a 32-year-old butcher.
The nasty smell of portable toilets installed at the entrance of the UNRWA's school filled the air.
Muslim women, their heads covered with scarves, were busy hanging laundry on the school's windows and rooftops. Children played barefoot in the courtyard, and groups of young men whiled time by playing cards.
Khalid Ismail said he fled to Beddawi with his family a week after the fighting erupted. Now jobless, the 26-year-old carpenter wants to go home.
"I am happy that the war has ended but sad over the loss of all our property and life savings in a single day," he said. He said that some of his friends died in the fighting.