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The Long Road Home

The Pontifical Mission helps displaced Lebanese return to war-ravaged villages

by David Sheehan

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Reconstruction is a much-used word in Washington these days, with politicians debating how many months and dollars the rebuilding of Iraq will require. The reconstruction of a poor, war-tossed country in one of the most volatile regions of the world, however, defies quick solutions.

Nowhere has this been more true than in Lebanon. Some 13 years after the end of its bloody civil war the country is still grappling to overcome the scars of 15 years of destruction and chaos. The fighting, which took more than 100,000 lives, not only upset Lebanon’s precarious political order and fragile economy, it also tore at the multiconfessional fabric of the nation.

Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shiite houses were destroyed, churches and mosques desecrated and whole villages wrecked. The displacement of nearly half a million from their ancestral homes aggravated sectarian tensions and threatened the extinction of village life in Mount Lebanon and its southern slopes, the Chouf, which for centuries had cultivated Lebanon’s unique role and identity as a refuge for religious minorities.

The resilience of the displaced has been remarkable despite the broken promises of resettlement by successive postwar governments. The steadfastness of the displaced has been matched and rewarded by CNEWA’s operational arm in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, which has been active in Lebanon for over 50 years.

The Pontifical Mission, which provided emergency relief during the darkest days of the war, has seen its role evolve to meet the reconstruction challenges facing the country in the postwar era. Having provided shelter, food and medical care to refugees who fled their villages in Mount Lebanon to escape bitter fighting in the 1980’s, the relief and development agency of the Holy See has now turned its attention to resettling the displaced in their former homes and villages.

It is conducting and supporting rehabilitation work, micro-credit programs and large infrastructure projects. The work is being done in the belief that the key to Lebanon’s future is restoring its illustrious past, one built on the steep slopes and in the lush valleys of Mount Lebanon.

An uneasy peace came in 1990 with the signing of the Taif Accord, named after the city in Saudi Arabia where it was signed. The formal disbanding of most wartime militias was a welcome end to years of bloodshed, but rebuilding the country would require more than a political agreement.

More than 78,000 homes had been destroyed and some 450,000 people, nearly one out of seven Lebanese, were internally displaced. Some 86 percent of the displaced came from Mount Lebanon, where intense sectarian violence exploded following the Israeli withdrawal from the Chouf in 1983.

An estimated 350,000 residents of Mount Lebanon alone were displaced in what became known as the “Mountain War” between the militias of the Christian Lebanese Forces and Druze Progressive Socialist Party. The militias were battling to fill the vacuum left by the Israelis, who had invaded the country in 1982 to fight Palestinian militants. The Chouf, whose picturesque stone villages and cedar forests Christians and Druze had shared since the 16th century, was the scene of tragedies for both communities.

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Tags: Lebanon Relief Homes/housing Civil War