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Rebuilding Nahr el Bared

After its destruction in the 2007 conflict, how did residents and architects go about rebuilding one of Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camps?

In the late spring of 2007 a conflict between the armed Islamist group Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army destroyed one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The refugee settlement was home to around 30,000 people, many of whom had fled their homeland after the forced creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The war in 2007 confronted the refugees with an existential threat of similar proportions, physically erasing sixty years of exile history.


Nahr el Bared, Lebanon in 2008. Coello123/Demotix.

Reconstructing informal settlements is a challenging task under most circumstances. It requires rebuilding a space that itself was never meant to last. What makes matters particularly difficult for Palestinians is that the temporary nature of the camp has often been used as a strategic weapon and key symbol in Palestinians national struggle; a struggle which demands the temporariness of the camps as bargaining tools for future Palestine-Israel negotiation. Yet the enduring conditions of exile have made it ever clearer that the meaning of the camps had changed, from a testimony to the unrealised promise of returning home, to a painful reminder of the impossibility of justice in Palestine.

The conflicting ideas of return, roots and origins that divides Palestinians and Israelis, inflected the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared, Lebanon with a unique set of challenges. If the camps are already a manifestation of colonial violence and oppression on what basis should their spatial memory be preserved? Whose histories and traumas do they in fact embody and how can they be honoured without turning residents into eternal prisoners of their pasts? 

What was at stake in reconstructing Nahr el Bared then, unlike other settlement reconstruction projects, involved much more then the recuperation of lost property and assets. It confronted architects and planners with the delicate task of reclaiming the historical achievements of sixty years in exile without diminishing the right to return.


Coello123/Demotix.

The spatial history of Nahr el Bared

Since its founding in 1949, Nahr el Bared has long outgrown its original size and location. The land, at around 200,000m² was originally rented by UNRWA [1], and was soon too small to house the second and third generation of residents. People began to expand, first vertically by building up; then horizontally by buying up land in the immediate vicinity of the settlement. Most of these investments however were, as is the case with so many ‘informal’ developments of the poor, never documented on official maps.

The majority of camp residents acquired their land via power of attorney. Power of attorney is a common legal format used to obtain effective use rights without being formally registered as owner of a piece of land. [2] This made it almost impossible, after its destruction, for the refugees to reclaim title deeds for their private homes and businesses and retrieve the historically grown spatial structure of the camp.  The risk of losing the camp for good led a young team of architects to propose mapping at a level of detail that made sure Nahr el Bared could be rebuilt just as it was before. The centrepiece of this ambitious project was a property database that recorded every home, business or public building that had ever been constructed in and around Nahr el Bared. It took 2 years just to collect raw data on property and business assets and a similar amount of time to verify all losses reported by the refugees. [3]

The work of this grassroots initiative is unprecedented. No Palestinian settlement in Lebanon, erstwhile fairly opaque in official documentation, has ever been recorded at that level of detail before. In doing so the architects not only brought an unknown chapter of Palestinian history into previously unseen attention but they also set new standards for the way in which camp histories would be recorded and accounted for. The most significant aspect of the initiative however, was the relationship formed between the planners and the camp population. Putting the refugees at the heart of the research process was essential to asserting residents as key authors and owners of the spatial memory of the camp.

The collaborative approach of the grassroots initiative marks a radical break with the totalising logic of the humanitarian system that tends to reduce refugee populations to their primary survival needs. [4]

Humanitarianism as structure of communication

Crisis interventions are designed to render chaos into manageable situations. This leads refugee relief agencies to almost by default, reduce complex social situations to the most basic human needs. Yet this flexible regime of on-demand welfare provision has long outgrown its initial function as emergency response mechanism. As Michel Agier rightly suggests, a view echoed by Marianne Potvin in this series, with the increasing ubiquity of conflict and disaster, humanitarianism has transformed into a globalised apparatus of sovereign governance (Agier, 2010). 

Humanitarianism inaugurates its own time and space in which rights and entitlements are rendered effective. The primary party to its targeted interventions is the ‘wordless victim, the one excluded from the logos, armed only with the moan of naked suffering’ to express its needs (Ranciere, 1999, p. 126) (Ranciere, 1999, p. 126). As a structure of communication then, humanitarianism leaves no room for disagreement or contention. Rather it deprives subjects of the right to self representation and effectively forecloses any possibility to recognize aid recipients outside the totalizing template of the ‘beneficiary’ (Agier, 2010, p. 32). It’s against this backdrop of humanitarianisms minimalist social and political imagination that the property database of Nahr el Bared can be considered as a remarkable historical achievement. It provided a tool to successfully break the depoliticising impact of representation built into the refugee regime.  

Data as political technology

The lack of archival records in Nahr el Bared has clearly demonstrated the critical significance of information for political claim-making among disenfranchised groups.  The refugees, after the conflict, had once again lost everything they ever owned, faced with the challenge of having to rebuild their lives out of nothing residents had to rely first and foremost on their memory and knowledge in order to reclaim their place on the political map. The central role of the refugees in retrieving the history of Nahr el Bared, thus, not only gave people an active voice in decisions over their future but made them an integral part in retrieving a critical chapter of Palestinian exile history.

Yet, the knowledge gathering project soon became a site of severe power struggles that resulted in fierce battles between the architects and the political factions who had previously been in charge of administering the camp. At the heart of their dispute was the question: who would be in charge of verifying the data collected on the camp? [5] The rivalries between political representatives and planners severely undermined the emancipatory promise of the project and eventually led to the demise of using the database as a starting point toward self governance in the camp.

This is of course a highly tragic outcome against which the idea of data as technology of resistance appears utterly flawed. And yet the failure to live up to its promise is not a function of the database’s operative logic but rather relates to the wider framework of power within which its liberating potential was able to unfold. Hence, the property database of Nahr el Bared may have failed to put residents in control of the future of the camp, it nonetheless managed to disrupt the monopoly of representation held by refugee relief agencies. What’s more, the fact that the refugees’ spatial memory provided the primary source of information for the rebuilding process enabled the Palestinians in exile to reclaim visibility and presence without reducing the complexity of their situation to the simplifying template of the beneficiary.

Accounting for people’s property and possession became a powerful means to represent the camp population as agents of change and masters of their own fortunes. The gradual extension of the camp from is historical core into the surrounding villages in this sense reflects much more than the track record of the Nahr el Bared’s spatial syntax. It testifies to the gradual emancipation the refugees from a community of destiny and suffering into a self sufficient group of sovereign actors, capable of speaking and deciding for themselves. It’s in this sense that data and information can be understood as a powerful tool of self expression through which new manoeuvres in political claim-making may be redeemed.

Collectively held knowledge is one of the most precious resources available to populations who have little more than their memory to affirm their existence as political entities. Being able to control the ways in one becomes visible and addressable as a political actor constitutes a unique source of power. It makes room for forms of sovereignty that enable those, who have so far been deprived of the supreme authority to set their agenda, to escape humanitarianisms totalizing frame.  Such forms of expressive sovereignty can open up new fields of political intervention to successfully confront or bypass the minimalist logic built into the refugee regime. What the critical significance of data in the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared clearly showed is that effective information management can become a critical platform for a new kind of deliberative political practice in which the ability to control modalities of reference become a key means to reclaim political self determination and popular sovereignty. 


This article is based on research conducted by the author for the ESRC funded program Conflict in Cities and the Contested State (RES-060-25-0015) at the Universities of Exeter, Cambridge and Queens in the UK.


References:

Agier, M. (2010). Humanity as an Identity and Its Political Effects. Humanity , Fall, 29-45. 

Ranciere, J. (1999). Disagreement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


[1] UNRWA is  the main UN body in charge providing for the well being of Palestinian refugees.

[2] This was initially done to avoid the high taxation on property owned by foreigners in Lebanon. Since 2001  Palestinians are no longer able to buy land altogether. This change was introduced by the Lebanese government to prevent the permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon.

[3] He camp population was quick in turning the tremendous loss to their advantage and often exaggerated the size and value of homes and businesses they previously owned. This required to check and verify all information provided by the refugees about their property and assets, which was extremely time consuming and at times involved undue manipulation by those in charge of validating data and homeowners alike.

[4] The work of UNRWA, the primary UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, in fact marks an unusual exception here. The agency exclusively caters to the needs of Palestinians and was in fact specifically founded to respond to the high volume of displacement created by the events of 1948. Yet UNRWAS services nonetheless do not extend beyond basic social, educational and health services which has left the refugees largely to rely on their own creativity and survival skills to secure their long term future and survival over the past 60 years.

[5] Since there were no official documents available to certify people’s losses, the data collectors had to rely primarily on claims made by the refugees themselves. Many camp residents grossly exaggerated the size and value of lost property and assets which made it necessary to check their accounts against testimonies from neighbours and authoritative figures. Validating people’s property under these conditions became a unique source of power, which the political factions were not willing to share. The fact that the critical task of verifying data had been entrusted with a young team of planners with no history in the camp was perceived as a direct attack on old established monopolies of power. Some faction members perceived the newcomers as unwanted competition and started to fight for control over critical planning tasks.

About the author

Monika Halkort is assistant professor of media and information ethics at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Her research centres on the social life of information and examines how digital technologies may be used as critical platforms to develop new forms of popular sovereignty.


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