Riad Ataya pointed out of a window to a small vessel in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Naqoura, some 100 kilometres south of Lebanese capital Beirut.
“Look – that’s my boat,” he said proudly. “We even have a global positioning system, so we can find our way home after fishing in deep waters.”
The 55-year-old fishermen said he never thought he would see the day when he would own his own fully-equipped boat. “Before, we were fishing in car tyres,” he explained.
Ataya’s good fortune is the result of a programme, run jointly by the UN and the Lebanese government, aimed at rehabilitating the local fishing industry. While fishing had been a staple trade in the area, it had been largely dormant during Israel’s 22-year-long occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended five years ago.
“We couldn’t do anything when the Israelis were here,” said Ataya, the head of Naqoura’s modest fishermen’s syndicate, pointing in the direction of the Blue Line, some three kilometers away, which separates Lebanon from its former occupier. “Now we’re beginning to live our lives again.”
So far, a number of families have benefited from the programme, part of a larger initiative designed to rehabilitate the impoverished and war-wracked south of the country.
Implemented in stages following the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2000, the programme aims at reviving traditional agriculture industries, such as mushroom farming, bee keeping and olive oil production in some 26 villages.
“After the Israeli army left in 2000, the economic situation was extremely poor here,” said UNDP programme manager Mohamad Mukalled. “Post-conflict rehabilitation is being carried out to help stabilise the remaining population and to attract people back to revitalise the economy.”
Thanks to the programme, some 120 families, a considerable portion of the village’s modest population, are now working in the industry. Many boats, meanwhile, are equipped with modern equipment, and a fish market – replete with refrigeration units – has been established. This is a vast improvement on the TNT explosives that were previously used to blow fish out of water.
Despite the improved climate for fishermen, Ataya said that local salaries, which average about $200 per month, still aren’t enough to provide for the average family of seven. “Our income has nearly doubled, but we could do much more if we had a bigger port and better boats,” he said.
INVESTMENT BADLY NEEDED
Ever since the Israeli withdrawal, there has been little investment in southern Lebanon.
Mukalled attributed this to a number of reasons, including the lack of government planning and political conditions often imposed by would-be donors.
Observers note that the dearth of investment also has to do with the presence in the area of the Hezbollah militia, which controls the south. The group, locally credited with the expulsion of Israeli forces, is also a political party, which enjoys 17 seats in parliament.
Experts argue that the group’s conflict with Israel and calls by Washington for its disarmament deters would-be donors from investing in the south.
Joint UN projects in the south over the past five years have totalled some $4 million.
As a result of this shortfall, 37 percent of households in the south live without basic needs, including viable sanitation systems and access to potable water. The area also suffers from low levels of education. While there are several schools in all villages, many lack even the most basic equipment, such as desks.
Unemployment in the area, too, is rampant. While the rate of people out of work stands at 11.5 percent countrywide, according to UNDP/government figures, this rate is thought to be much higher in the country’s south.
Historically, residents of the area have been farmers, with traditional crops consisting of olives, grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat and tobacco. With the coming of the Israeli occupation, however, much of the area’s arable land was planted with mines, curtailing the viability of the industry.
This, in turn, has led to a considerable outflow of the local work force.
“More than half of the young population have left to seek jobs in Beirut or abroad,” said Mukalled. “For those who are in the villages, there are few opportunities.”
No recent census has been conducted, largely for political reasons, and accurate statistics are hard to come by. But according to local aid workers, some 44,000 people from the village of Bint Jbeil, a few kilometres from the current Israeli border, left the area over the course of the occupation. A population of a mere 7,000 was left behind.
And, given the feeble job local market, the trend seems set to continue. “I will have to look for work in Beirut, too, due to a lack of opportunities in the area,” said teenager Sharbil Louka, echoing the concerns of his friends.
|Youth group in the south discusses religious divides.
The UN’s joint initiative also seeks to heal the sectarian divisions in the country during the bloody civil war and its aftermath.
Under the occupation, mingling between communities was discouraged. “We didn’t go out and mix much before, because we were scared,” said Nadine Bedoun, an 18-year-old Muslim. “But now we’ve made friends in the Christian villages, and we feel at ease now.”
In an effort to bridge sectarian divides, the programme runs a series of youth groups, in which young people from different communities have a chance to meet and discuss common concerns. “These groups bring the various communities and different confessional groups together to build a better future,” Mukalled explained.
“I’ve met young people from Muslim communities in neighbouring villages,” said Louka, who is from the predominantly Christian village of Debel. “This promotes peace between our communities.”
Young people in the nearby Muslim village of Bint Jbeil discuss life in the impoverished and empty southern region less than a kilometre from the border. “I used to be very aggressive and not open to others, but I have learned how to be more democratic now,” said another participant.
Activities are designed to promote peace and encourage those displaced by the war to return to their villages of origin. Besides being taught concepts of dialogue and tolerance, participants are also given access to computer centres, training and sports facilities.
THE NEED TO INTEGRATE FORMER DETAINEES
The programme has also recognized a need to help rehabilitate those who suffered physically and mentally while imprisoned by Israel or its Christian proxy force in southern Lebanon, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). During the conflict, both groups were criticized by watchdog groups for human rights violations.
In an effort to reintegrate them into society, so they can ultimately contribute to the local economy, the programme offers psychological support to former prisoners. Those who spent time as detainees – of either the Israeli Army or the SLA proxy army – are provided with medical services, psychological counselling, vocational training and micro-credit programmes.
In the village of Yaron, many still have painful memories of harsh treatment by their captors. “I went through hell in jail,” said Mohammed Ramadan, a resistance fighter detained by the Israelis at the notorious Khayam Prison – now a museum – between 1989 and 1996. “Now, I contact other detainees to see if they need counselling, and encourage them to talk about their trauma,” he said.
According to the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, approximately 8,000 people from the area were detained during the conflict.
PEACEKEEPERS OFFER A HELPING HAND
Five years after the pull-out, peacekeepers from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), dispatched in 1978, are still highly visible. The force’s mandate was originally to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the south, restore security and assist the Lebanese government in restoring its authority in the area.
Ongoing sporadic skirmishes on the border between Israel and Hezbollah over the disputed Shebaa Farms territory, however, have served to keep UNIFIL in the region.
The 2000-strong peacekeeping force is also doing its bit to help out, but – without a budget for philanthropy – it can only offer limited assistance. “Humanitarian assistance is part of our mandate, but we don’t receive funds for this,” UNIFIL senior advisor, Milos Struger said.
Nevertheless, through small donations from its various contingents, the force been able to provide mobile medical clinics, equip local schools and offer technical assistance to farmers.
In the meantime, aid workers remain hopeful, despite the super-power politics currently swirling around the south. They are counting on a Lebanon donor’s conference, tentatively scheduled for before the end of the year, to bring in much needed investment to the impoverished region.