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Middle East

A tough homecoming for Lebanon's Christians

The Lebanese village of Brih will soon double in size as Christians displaced by the country's civil war return. Some say government mishandling of the situation is hindering their homecoming. Ruth Michaelson reports.

Alfred Khoury is sitting on the dilapidated porch of a house that has been empty for 30 years. The blue and yellow paintwork around him is flaking off the walls, but for now it's the interior of the house that's getting a facelift as he rebuilds. He's also adding upper floors to the old brickwork.

"I grew up here and I have so many nice memories of this house," says Khoury, his hands caked in dust from the building work. "A group of friends and I used to have little parties here, with arak and tabbouleh. There's nothing nicer than being in your village again. It's the basis of everything; it's your village.

Khoury's house sits in Brih, a village in Lebanon's mountainous Chouf region. By April 5, the town's population is set to double as 3,000 of its former Christian residents return to rebuild or repair the homes they fled 32 years ago. Brih is the last of 90 towns in Lebanon to undergo this government-mandated resettlement project.

Scene of massacre

Approximately 260,000 Christians fled the Chouf region during what came to be known as the War of the Mountains, which began in 1983. This pitted Druze against their Christian neighbors for control of Chouf, ultimately resulting in many Christians fleeing to nearby Beirut, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.

Alfred Khoury gestures towards his farmland from what will be the top floor of his house, still under construction. The farmland currently can't be farmed due to bad weather and difficulty of access

Alfred Khoury feels the war was 'a passing cloud'

"It's a feeling you can't describe," says Khoury of the return. "No one would have expected this to happen in Brih, especially given the history of the place."

Brih endured a fierce round of bloodletting as part of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, notably the 1977 massacre at St Georges Church, in which 13 Christian worshippers were killed by automatic gunfire inside their place of worship. After the town's Christian residents fled, their houses either became derelict or were demolished.

Now there are signs of construction all over Brih, and signs of destruction too. Some residents have voiced concerns that there has been too much enthusiasm for knocking down the old-style buildings and simply building new ones, rather than restoring the houses that have stood there for decades, albeit empty.

'A new chapter'

But even as the old houses are knocked down, there are no plans to erect a monument to the brutal events of the civil war. Indeed, even the memories that the residents have seem to be unwanted.

Khoury says that the war remains mostly an unspoken topic. Instead, he says he chooses to focus only on his good memories of the village as a young man. "What happened is like a cloud, and now it's passed," he says.

For Khoury, the way forward isn't monuments, but education. "We should make a school here, but not just any school - a model school," he says. "Right now there are 400 students here in Brih who have to leave the village to study. For me, school is even more important than your house of worship; it strengthens your relationship with where you're from."

Sitting next to him on the porch is Khaled Boazzidin, a Druze resident of Brih and a member of the local Committee for the Returnees. He is staunchly upbeat and positive about the return of Brih's Christians, describing it a "a new chapter."

Portrait of Khalid Boazzidin in his home

Khalid Boazzidin, a Druze, wants the Christians back

"Of course I want the Christians to come back - these people were my neighbors, my friends," he says. "I want us to live as we did before. All the Druze here want the Christians to come back - it's their right."

Premature return?

But both Boazzidin and Khoury agree that the deadlines set by the Lebanese government could do more harm than good.

The 3,000 people in Beirut must leave their homes there by April 5, and return to Brih. But there are no houses for them to move into - most aren't yet beyond the early stages of construction. Khoury argues that there is a general lack of infrastructure in Brih, as the town's industry was more or less gutted by the war. Brih now needs phone lines and other basic facilities - but beyond this, it needs hospitals and other essential services.

Adding to this is the problem of a lack of schools in Brih. "The school year hasn't finished yet," says Boazzidin. "They should have put the deadline in July, or at least at the end of the school year."

The Lebanese government is providing some funds for the rebuilding process via the Fund for the Displaced set up in 1993 under the Taif agreement that organized power-sharing after the civil war. The fund allows for $20,000 (18,360 euros) in two installments per unit - that is per house to be built, not per person. Each person must use his or her allowance to build a house, without combining the stipend within one family.

Residents like Khoury aren't sure when they'll see the money. He laughs when asked about government aid, saying: "the state hasn't paid me anything. For now I'm paying everything out of my own pocket, as much as I'm able to. But it's their responsibility, really."

Construction in Brih ahead of the April 5 deadline for Christians to arrive

Construction is going on ahead of the Christians' return

"Twenty thousand dollars is not enough at all, because rebuilding this house will cost at least $100,000," he explains. "Twenty thousand dollars covers the basics for one floor of the house. But everything is expensive - the materials and the workers combined. The money given to us by the ministry would just cover the cleanup costs. It's not much help, but it's better than nothing."

Khoury has the small advantage of being able to repair a house that is still standing. But others are not so lucky - they must rebuild from the foundations up.

'Lack of government aid'

At the Lahoud family home in Beirut, Abbas Lahoud and his family remember the civil war beginning with the 1977 St Georges Church massacre. For them, the harsh memories of the war are already difficult to forget, and the obstacles now preventing them from moving back to Brih are even worse.

The family has occupied the same home in Sin el-Fil since they fled Brih, and have never paid rent, in keeping with a Lebanese law that protects those displaced during the civil war until they are rehoused.

"We'll be kicked out of here on April 5 - but where are we supposed to go? It's the middle of the school year as well. The ministry offered us help for two extra months, but no more. Plus, it's still winter, so how could we go back and rebuild?" explains one relative angrily. Some members of the family requested their names be withheld due to fears about having their names attached to this topic.

A large cross sits at the crossroads which lead up to the village of Brih

Some Christians worry about what awaits them

The Lahouds are also skeptical that they'll receive both their payments in time to build within a timeframe that would allow them to move to Brih. As each $20,000 must be used per house, not per person, the Lahouds intend to get their first payment and pool their money in order to put a down payment on a flat in Beirut.

"I've always felt that I've been uprooted from where I was from," says Abbas Lahoud. "Christians and Druze can overcome their differences; we went to school together after all." But another young relative is a little less optimistic. Aged 27, he was born outside of Brih, but wants to go back and build a house in his ancestral home if he can.

"We couldn't even visit Brih until very recently," he explains. "It was the political agreement last May that changed everything." He is critical of a government that he sees as hungry for a political success story, but where the financial aid is still tacked to 1993 prices, as per the law.

"We'd like to go back and forget, but the government isn't helping with this," he explains, critical of the red tape and lack of viable funds he views as preventing him from building the house he so badly wants. "You could say that we're still civil war victims."