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French Version

Almost two years after war, displaced residents of Beirut's southern suburbs are still caught in the middle

Wrangling between opposition and government helps snarl process of compensating those who lost their homes to Israeli bombs

When widow Salam Hassoun and her three children left their home in Beirut's southern suburbs on the third day of the summer 2006 war with Israel, she did not know it would be for the last time.

Israeli bombs displaced over 1 million Lebanese from across the country, but it was the Hizbullah-controlled southern suburbs, home to an estimated 850,000 people, that suffered the heaviest bombardment - some 942 air strikes during the 34-day war, according to figures from the Lebanese Army.

One of those bombs destroyed Hassoun's building. Two hundred and nineteen buildings were destroyed in all. A further 150 buildings were partially destroyed and 233 buildings damaged, according to Lebanon's Higher Relief Council (HRC).

Nearly two years on, Hassoun and other residents of the southern suburbs returned to the first newly built apartment block this month only to find themselves caught up in the political conflict between the government and the Hizbullah-led opposition that has hampered reconstruction and left many displaced families tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

"Many thanks to Hizbullah for giving us $12,000 in compensation, but the money wasn't enough to start up a new life," said Hassoun. "The government has not paid me anything and now I have a debt to the bank of $17,000."

After the July war, launched by Israel after Hizbullah militants captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged to rebuild every home damaged by the conflict. The party made initial distributions of $12,000 to affected residents, financed by a $150 million donation from key Hizbullah backer Iran.

In October 2006 Prime Minister Fouad Siniora launched an appeal to international donors for $1.3 billion for postwar reconstruction. So far the government says it has received only $748.3 million, most from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and has spent $466.3 million on reconstruction - $141.1 million of which in the southern suburbs. The government promised compensation in two payments of $26,666 to each family who lost their home due to the war.

Since December 2006, however, Hizbullah has led opposition to the coalition government, resigning from the Cabinet, accusing the government of pursuing US and Israeli interests and refusing to elect a replacement to former President Emile Lahoud, whose term expired in November 2007.

The coalition government of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties are backed by the US, France and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, while Shiite Hizbullah and Amal and their Christian allies in opposition are backed by Syria and Shiite-ruled Iran.

Officials from Hizbullah's construction project, Waad, which means "promise" in Arabic, say the political split has hampered its efforts to rebuild the southern suburbs.

"Our first goal is to rebuild the suburbs as soon as possible because the people are part of the victory Hizbullah achieved in the July war, and this victory will not be complete unless we rebuild all the houses," Waad General Manager Hassan Jeshi told IRIN.

There are many obstacles facing Waad; two years on from the war the government has only paid residents 55 percent of the first compensation payment promised, which means it has paid only about a quarter of total compensations promised," said Jeshi.

Waad has asked the government pay the compensation due to residents directly to the Hizbullah construction firm in order to pay for the rebuilding of homes.

The government has refused to pay money directly to Waad, saying it pays only to individual residents, and said compensation payments have been complicated because many buildings in the southern suburbs - like other parts of the country - were built illegally during the 1976-1990 Civil War, or residents do not have legal documents proving tenancy or ownership.

Of the 17,904 homes in the southern suburbs processed, some 13,706 have received checks, according to the HRC Web site covering post-July-war reconstruction.

The status of the southern suburbs has long been a point of contention between Hizbullah and its rivals. Hizbullah critics accuse the party of running a "state within a state," transforming the suburbs into a Hizbullah security zone which the Lebanese Army and police cannot enter.

Hizbullah accuses the government of failing to provide adequate services to the area, including electricity, a grievance which prompted deadly riots in January.

Hoda Alam Aldeen, an architecture professor at the American University of Beirut and member of Waad's consulting committee, rejected accusations that buildings in the southern suburbs were illegal.

"Only two out of 219 [destroyed] buildings are illegal and we found a solution for these buildings by buying land so we can rebuild these buildings on it," she said.

The stall in compensation payments has left residents in the southern suburbs indebted to Hizbullah, since residents signed legal documents granting Waad the right to rebuild their homes and to collect their compensation money if and when it is paid by the government.

Rent payments while displaced and purchasing new furniture have left residents further in debt.

Hassoun said she spent nearly $9,000 on rent between late September 2006 and January 2008, of which Hizbullah paid $4,000, and she took a $17,000 loan for buying furniture and making improvements to her flat that Waad rebuilt. Hassoun also owes Waad $48,000 for rebuilding her home, which is to be paid on receiving compensation from the government. She has not yet received her first payment.

"Thank God I returned home, but I am not happy because I had no furniture to put in an empty apartment," said Hassoun. "We are the victims of a new war that the government is leading against us because we support Hizbullah and the opposition."

Waad's Jeshi said that despite the stall in compensation, the firm was rebuilding 200 of the 219 destroyed buildings using "clean money" - a reference to Iran, which finances Hizbullah - and hopes to finish the job by the end of 2009.

To date, Waad has repaired 105 of the 150 partially destroyed buildings with all 1,470 families moved back in. So far the firm has only rebuilt one of the 219 destroyed buildings, meaning only 25 of the 3,405 families whose homes were completely destroyed have been able to move back.

Beirut 30-04-2008
The Daily Star

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