Karantina's displaced: from palaces to basements
Beirut – Al Hayat
‘Hajjeh’ Samia’s face is flushed as she reminisces about the “good old days”. She talks about the family home in Karantina and the engravings on the marble wall in the salon of her spacious house. There is a sparkle in her eyes as she talks about it. It is like she has been taken back there to the golden days when her father was a well off meat trader and where she, her mother and siblings lived in comfort. Few people in Lebanon know anything about those peaceful days in the area commonly known as ‘Karantina’ or ‘slaughterhouse’ of the ‘Medawar’ area on the Beirut coast.
One night in the middle of January 1976, a year after the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon, Samia’s family, and an estimated 10,000, were forced to leave Karantina to flee the shelling and killing. They left their homes and possessions behind, hoping to return once the violence ended. In the meantime, they had to reside wherever they could. However, 37 years later – and 23 years after the end of the civil war – none of the displaced people of Karantina have returned to their homes because of what they claim are sectarian issues. While most of the displaced are Muslim, the area is now predominantly Christian.
Most Lebanese are under the false impression that the displaced people of Karentina are not Lebanese. They think of them as Palestinian, Syrian, Armenian or migrant workers from the rural areas, living in tin-roofed shacks on state-owned property.
This misconception has meant that the displaced people of Karantina get none of the compassion and sympathy offered to displaced people from other areas, the majority of whom have returned to their land. The last of these were the Christians displaced from the Druze-majority village of Breih.
In 2013, an executive decision under the direction of the President of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman was taken to close that file. But the displaced of Karantina are still unable to return to their land and remain ‘registered’ in other departments such as Al Mazra’a and Ras Beirut. In fact, ‘security reasons’ are cited for refusing them the right to visit or check on their property after the houses built on their land were destroyed.
On the surface, this ban seems justified by the presence of Lebanese army barracks in the area. But some believe there is a mixture of racial, sectarian, political and investment motives behind it.
An investigation carried out by Al Hayat newspaper reveals a history of neglect and procrastination by the authorities, if not full blown conspiracy between various agencies of the state since 1990, starting with heads of state who never fail to refer to the “return of the displaced” in their inaugural speeches, all the way through the Council of Ministers which is responsible for issuing decisions in this regard and supervising their implementation. This has led to a large group of Lebanese people being unfairly treated as their identity and allegiance have been put under question.
Official documents, pictures and statements collected from those directly concerned reveal the injustice inflicted on the people of Karantina, many of whom “would have led better lives had they not been forced to leave their homes”, according to some of them. This proves that the displaced are not squatters but Lebanese citizens who own the property where their houses once stood. The pursuit of their cause by legal means has not given them back their rights.
Today, there is no trace in Karantina of what these people describe as the ‘beautiful’ homes they owned before 1976. ‘Sleep Comfort’, a furniture store, looks out of place in an area still marked by the sights of war. A small number of inhabited buildings is scattered around the western part of the area away from the barracks, their facades scarred by bullet holes. Wide areas of land are covered in weed, after everything that once stood on it was destroyed. In the eastern part, behind the ‘Forum de Beyrouth’, lie the Lebanese Army barracks which in the early 90’s replaced the headquarters of a war council, itself built over the ruins of the displaced people’s homes immediately after their forced eviction in 1976.
Ruins and Denial
There are still those who deny that those houses ever existed.
The Military Command did not respond to our first email in which we requested both permission to enter the area and an interview with a military source to end the dispute over the issue. We sent a second request on October 18th 2012, eight days after that first email, and were informed by phone that our request had been denied.
A retired brigadier general who had served in the Lebanese army before the outbreak of the war in Karantina – and who wished to remain anonymous – confirmed that moving the barracks away from the Port was out of the question. “Beirut is congested and there are no uninhabited areas into which the barracks could be moved. In fact, it is difficult to move the army out of any area, especially in light of the current tense security situation”.
Can the security situation, however, justify the continued presence of the Army in the area for more than 23 years?
According to the retired brigadier, “law gives the state the right to confiscate land and use it for its military needs. This law allows us to confiscate houses and compensate their owners”.
But to him, the question of damages incurred by displaced people who own such expensive land seems odd. “The Karantina was basically a group of tin-roof houses and tents where refugees of different nationalities took shelter,” he says. This is the story believed by many Lebanese.
The displaced, however, take issue with what the general says, as does the former Minister of the Interior, Beshara Merhej (1992), who confirms that the area was inhabited. The argument is settled upon presentation of photographs which were salvaged from the ruins and which show one aspect of life in the area. The photos show multiple-storey, roadways and cars, with no sign of the tin-roof houses. The displaced say that while those tin roof houses did not exist in their own area, they did in fact exist in nearby neighborhoods where tents were put up, at the beginning of the last century, for displaced Armenians and Palestinians who took refuge in Lebanon in the wake of the ‘Nakba’ (Arabic for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people), as well as Syrian laborers who had worked in Lebanon and left when the war broke out.
The military officer has no response to this except to say: “I may have the place mixed up with some other”.
Documents that Make for Compelling Evidence
‘Al Hayat’ has also obtained property deeds and lists of around 220 properties, together with the names of their owners, proving that multiple storied houses used to stand on this land and that their owners are of Lebanese origin.
The owner of one of the properties where the military barracks now stand, a displaced man in his seventies from the Diab family, says: “The army seized the properties more than 20 years ago, upon the departure of the ‘Lebanese Forces’ who came in to the area after the ‘Phalangists’ [Ultra-rightwing Christian militias].” He adds, “at the time, we were so hopeful and told ourselves that we would regain our rights but nothing happened. The problem is the proximity of our location to the port. Many companies are seeking to own land in the vicinity as part of plans to expand the port.”
Attorney Fuad Matar says that the displacement originally involved around 220 properties owned by around 6,000 Lebanese individuals from different sects. After the end of the war in the early 90’s, 40 families making up around 200 people, the majority of them Christians, returned to their properties. Most of those properties were concentrated in the western part, an area that was not destroyed during the war. The eastern side is wholly owned by Sunni Muslims, including around 132 properties, in addition to municipality-owned property that includes a car park and a clinic. Everything standing on this land was destroyed and nobody is allowed to go back to their property in this zone or to dispose of it.
What Is Stopping The Residents From Returning?
Attorney Matar sees that officials promised to allow the displaced to return. However, due to the presence of the military, the residents were unwilling to have a confrontation and so they refrained from escalating their activities.
“In 1993, after the ‘Forces’ left, the army entered the area and set up the 3rd Intervention Regiment in the barracks which replaced the War Council,” says Matar.
In 1994, the Council of Ministers issued Resolution 322 allowing the renovation of properties owned by displaced people inside villages and towns but not in cities. Beirut and more specifically the displaced people of Karantina were thus excluded. The Resolution also does not exempt such renovations from applicable taxes and fees when reconstructing demolished houses inside cities. It actually mandates the processing of building permits and it imposes fees and taxes to cover previous years. This applies exclusively to renovations inside cities and not those in towns and villages.
According to the lawyer, this is an “attempt to keep the residents away because property that was owned by one person is now owned by more than ten, what with the rising number of heirs to any given property over a period of 40 years. Consequently, the accumulated taxes over this period of time could exceed the cost of each individual heir’s earnings from the property itself”.
He also talks about demands to vacate the land, supported by an ordinance issued in 1996 by the Council of Ministers, which mandates the removal from the area of any standing structure. The author of the report was unable to obtain a copy of the ordinance, however.
Promises Of Vacating
The committee set up by the displaced people of Karantina sent a number of memoranda to the Army after 1990. A reply was received on July 4th 2009, the text of which is included in the documents attached to this report, and is signed by the Commander of the Lebanese Army, Jean Kahwaji.
It reads: “Military Command has taken the necessary measures to establish new barracks in favor of (to replace) the plot of land that these properties now occupy, and we will proceed to vacate (the plot) as soon as the new barracks are ready”. But to this day, none of the displaced have returned to their homes.
Attorney Matar confirms that the Committee of the Owners and Displaced of ‘Medawar’ (as the area is officially registered) is about to file a lawsuit to evacuate the army and to obtain compensation.
Attorney Hassan Matar, Head of the Committee of the Displaced People of Karantina, presents a number of letters sent by the Committee to officials, ranging from heads of government to Ministers charged with the portfolio of ‘Displaced People’ and the Military Command over the years. The letters date from the end of the war in 1990 and until this present day.
He also presents the reply received from the Military Command saying that: “The first letter from the Chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Jean Kahwaji , stated that the army will vacate the premises. It also confirmed that they were about to build alternative barracks in one year’s time”. Three years later, nothing has changed.
“At the end of 2011, the Ministry of Defense contacted me and requested that I report to Army Headquarters. At first, I thought they wanted to strike a deal with us on arrangements for the withdrawal. I went to a place not far from the Military Court where an Army general handed me a letter, the content of which was dangerous: ‘We would like to inform you that we cannot withdraw from the area until the reasons for which we entered it in the first place are no longer valid’.”
And what are those reasons? Attorney Matar answers, “Before that letter, we had met with and presented our case to the Minister for Displaced People, Akram Shehayeb, who was appointed in 2009, and with every new minister appointed to the post. However, the ministers for Displaced People continuously distance themselves from the issue, citing the “present situation” and claiming that their term in office will come to an end before the case is resolved.”
Minister Shehayeb met with the Chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces and quotes him as saying that “security concerns regarding the protection of the Eastern entrance to Beirut prevent them from vacating the area”. Matar says their excuse is always “that they want to safeguard the security of Beirut” but he questions whether the security of Beirut stops at the border of the Karantina area.
The truth, he says, is that its residents are forbidden from returning to the area.
The Relocation of the Barracks is not Impossible
When it comes to the option to sell the land to the army, the Minister, Beshara Merhej, says that the army does not usually acquisition land, but if it is in a strategic location then the Ministry of Defense may request it.
The Council of Ministers then takes the decision to acquisition the land and the Ministry of Finance enforces it. Merhej rejects the claim that the army doesn’t own alternative property to which to transfer the barracks. “When ‘security’ reasons are cited for a decision that neither has a time frame nor the endorsement of the Council of Ministers, the procedure ceases to be within the law and it becomes martial law. Who is to validate that the decision is in fact about security? It is not sufficient for the Military Command to say so and even if it does say so, the Council of Ministers must compensate the owners.”
Yet they have not been compensated and Merhej believes that this is because of sectarian politics and whims, which complicate the situation and impede its resolution. He says there are undisclosed sectarian reasons, as the displaced residents are Muslim in what is essentially a Christian-majority area that also hosts the headquarters of the Maronite League.
Add to that the state’s confused approach to urban planning in the area, unsure whether to annex it to the Linor project (an economic project, one aspect of which will involve landfills and the reclamation of the sea in several areas) or to expand the Port to include it. This has weighed heavier on the area, now marked “Under Consideration”, halting construction and other activities including normal administrative procedures. There is also the issue of law number 244, issued in 1994, which gives displaced proprietors the right to rebuild their houses and exempts them of license or construction permit fees, but this particular area was excluded. “This unjustly targeted the displaced people of Karantina and was not applied to anyone else”.
Merhej holds the State – represented by the Council of Ministers – collectively responsible because “it froze property under the pretext that it was ‘under consideration’ and has yet to give it that consideration.” Merhej sees no solution in sight as “the problem has become bigger and you need courage to resolve it.”
Away from all the legal disputes, in a small room in “Saint Simon”, Hajjeh Samia’s entire family, including her parents, meet up for a family reunion. The three sisters recall some memories of the time before the displacement and the eldest of the three brings a wooden box full of photographs of the family and their relatives. The pictures bring back some memories to Samia and she makes use of things that appear in the photo to tell the stories, blushing as she recounts how “the young men used to meet up in the afternoon at the crossroads; Riyad used to own a recreational store called ‘Flippers’. He used to pass in front of my house before going to the store and I could recognize him by his perfume. Those were the days of ‘Tabac’, ‘Glamour’ and ‘Ramage’”.
“After our marriage, we would wait until midnight to close the store and go for a stroll in ‘Jounieh’ where there was a famous ice cream store. Our house was new and beautiful, as we had only been married for a year and a half when we were displaced. Mohammad had his own separate bedroom, hand-sewn clothes and a box full of jewelry as he was the firstborn grandchild and everyone loved him. We left everything there not knowing that we would not return. We left all our jewelry and money and it all disappeared.
An Isolated Room Below The Staircase
Below the stairway that leads to an old building in ‘Tallet El Khayat’ in Beirut is a small pathway. It leads to a room no bigger than 25 square meters. The room is one meter below street level with a small window as its only source of light and air. The only furniture inside is three couches, a big cupboard and a refrigerator standing against the wall. The kitchen and washroom are to one side of the pathway, having been cordoned off by the family when they moved in to the room for what they thought would be their temporary use, but has become a permanent part of their lodgings.
It was in this room that Riyad Diab’s family took shelter a few days after they were displaced from Karantina in 1976. ‘Hajj’ Riyad is a father of three: Mohammad was born in Karantina, Rania was born the day of the displacement and Emad was born in ‘Tallet El Khayat’. “At night, the couches are turned into beds for all the family to share” as the lady of the house says.
The ‘Hajjeh’ is not keen to talk about life in the ‘room’. “Our situation today cannot be compared to what we had before, when the children were still in school and needed their own space to study and play. Today, there remain only three of us now that Rania and Imad are married”.
The one thing the ‘Hajjeh’ does like to talk about is the “Karantina days”. Her tone changes with the details she recounts and her voice starts to fade, indeed it almost disappears, when she gets to Displacement Day.
But before that day, how was life in the Karantina?
“We were very well off. We had everything we needed; my brothers changed cars every year. The Karantina girls would wear dresses like Suad Hosni (a famous Egyptian actress) and would compete with their sewing skills. Her husband interrupts her to say, “We were close to ‘Sahet al Burj’, ‘Souq al-Tawileh’ and ‘Souq Iyass’ in Central Beirut. We would walk to the Souq in the afternoon. People were happy. They were beautiful days. The houses were lovely and we owned one ourselves”.
The Real Estate Network
“We were not allowed to visit our own property, not once”, says Hajj Riyad. His son Imad did his military service in the barracks of the Karantina.
The ‘Hajj’ says with great sorrow, “When I went to visit him, they did not let me in so we met outside even though this land is mine and my son was serving there. At the time Imad told the soldiers, “You are all on my land” and the officer looked at him in surprise, so I said to the officer, “There is my home, exactly where that tree stands”.
Talking about the Karantina seems to be painful for the entire family but he continues, “We are, however, still alive. I own land, one square meter of which is worth more than 4 thousand dollars (the lawyer says that land speculation could drive the price up to 10 thousand dollars per square meter), and yet we live in one room in a basement”.
He also talks about the nominal compensation the residents received from the State for the damage caused by the destruction of the buildings: “Twenty thousand dollars for every demolished story, a sum that doesn’t even cover the property, belongings or the cars that were stolen.”
Riyad is scared by the brokers that come in every now and then, asking the landowners to sell their property for less than $3000 per square meter. Sometimes, they even demand the land for $2000. He says, “There is a network that exploits people and I think that this is meant to drive us to desperation and compel us to sell our land at very low prices. I know four displaced people whose heirs were in financial need and therefore sold the land for a pittance”.
Fuad Matar also talks about this network saying, “It seems like a project has been in the making for a while now. We are forbidden from returning to the Northern entrance of Beirut for sectarian reasons, to keep the ‘Solidere’ (the touristic center in the Downtown) peaceful and make it part of a bigger future commercial project. The ‘Solidere’ is close to the 5th basin which has touristic value arising from its maritime importance,” he explains.
“We received many offers from brokers to sell the land, even though the barracks are still there, so the issue here is similar to that of the Palestinians: the Right of Return”.
Who is making the offers to buy the property?
Matar says that the late former prime minister Rafiq Al Hariri tried to buy the land in the 1990’s but did not succeed.
“At the time, we put forward our case to the government and we stressed the issue of the landowners actually being Beirutis who vote in the first district. We tried to use the elections to press forward with the issue and were referred to a committee designated by the Council of Ministers to study the case. One of them once gave me this piece of advice, ‘Do not dream of going back. There are projects awaiting this land’. Maybe he was right!”
He points to a piece of land on a map, one that is adjacent to the barracks, and says, “Before this was sold, it used to lie within the walls of the barracks (which means that the owner has no right to do anything with it). However, the fence was moved to allow the land to be sold.”
“The land is owned by members of the Badawi family. They sold it after they’ve endured 40 years of injustice, because of their declining financial and health situation and because of the increasing number of heirs to the property.
We tried to verify this information with the Military Command but our request was rejected.
This investigation was carried out with the support of ARIJ and under the supervision of coach Bissan Cheikh.