Refuge in Ruin: Returning to Nahr al-Bared

All year, a string of car bombs, assassinations and the encampment of anti-government protesters in downtown Beirut had elevated fears that Lebanon's deepening political crisis could ignite an all-out war. Then a fierce clash erupted May 20 that pitted the national army against a surprising foe: a little-known militant group comprising hundreds of fighters firmly entrenched in the Palestinian camp at Nahr al-Bared.

The battle raged for 15 weeks, scattering the camp's 31,000 residents and shocking a fearfully divided nation. When the fighting ended Sept. 2, it had claimed hundreds of lives, leveled most of the camp and stretched the army perilously thin. In a country where Palestinians are still blamed for triggering the last civil war, it had raised the grim possibility that violence could spread to 11 similar camps. 'Post-Annapolis' discussions on the prospects for Palestinian statehood largely ignore the fate of Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinians. But the untold stories behind the rise of Fatah al-Islam, the ongoing displacement of Nahr al-Bared's two-time refugees and what –– if anything –– the government will do about the dismal conditions and shifting alliances within the camps, will help determine the region's future.

Transit Camp

The three months of fighting at Nahr al-Bared last year brought a period of relative unity to Lebanon. In a country whose political process is founded on sectarianism, the army is one of the few state organs free of religious-based schism. The Nahr al-Bared conflict, which pitted the army against the shadowy, foreign, Fatah al-Islam group, led Lebanese citizens of every sect to rally together behind their army.