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The ins and outs of helping people get what they want

Putting bint jbeil back together offers a lesson in civil intervention to overcome state inactivity

Monday, June 18, 2007

By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff



BINT JBEIL: When the summer 2006 war with Israel receded from Bint Jbeil, it left behind a ruin. Like other Shiite population centers along Lebanon's southern border - Khiam, Maroun al-Ras, Aita al-Shaab, to name a few - the town was mauled by unremitting bombardment.

One of the targets Israeli warplanes selected for special treatment in the last few days of the conflict was the 7,050-square-meter "old town" at the core of Bint Jbeil. It was regarded as a particularly spiteful attack, since locals say there had been no military operations in that part of the town. Sources in the town say that of the 2,800 houses damaged and destroyed in Bint Jbeil during the war, 1,032 were in the old town.

Today, nearly a year after the war started, Bint Jbeil is far from rebuilt so it is too soon to draw any conclusions from the reconstruction. After several months of inaction, though, it seems Bint Jbeil might be on the verge of a happy reconstruction story.

A sum estimated at $100 million has been set aside to rebuild the old town, thanks to the town's adoptive Qatari royal family. Mayor Ali Bazzi has agreed with proposals from a group of Beirut-area architectural professors, university students and conservationists to rebuild the old town in a manner that conserves the historic heritage of the place and attempts to revive its economy. A reconstruction master plan is in the late stages of preparation by well-known urban planner Nasser Sharifeddine, who heads the Committee for the Preservation of the Historic Town, a non-governmental organization that was formed for that purpose.

These several players are just part of a varied cast of actors, all apparently interested in doing what was best for the town's residents but all having distinct perspectives and priorities. It took some time for Bint Jbeil to reach this apparently happy equilibrium. Multi-layered and partially obscured as the old town itself, this still-unfinished story and its cast of characters provide an informative cross-section of contemporary Lebanese experience and a case study of how civil actors can interact with power.

As with so many of the stories coming out of the reconstruction effort, the premise has been the absence of the Lebanese state.

"There has been a lack of coordination between the Council of the South, the Qataris and the municipalities. They're all doing their own thing," said AUB architecture professor Howayda al-Harithy. She has been one of the architects participating in the AUB Reconstruction Unit (RU), a civil initiative of academics and students to influence the reconstruction process by freely sharing their expertise with other actors in the field. "No one from the state was co-ordinating. By default, we became co-ordinators."
"There's a problem here now because some 115 families here don't have a home to go to anymore," said Haitham Bazzi, an interior designer who runs the Bint Jbeil office of the Committee for the Preservation of the Historic Town. "It's a great challenge fixing this problem without the assistance of the state. Hizbullah helped out. The Qataris are helping in the old city and Bint Jbeil generally."

Bazzi says he has 200 antique houses that he's working to preserve, some of which he says date back centuries. The structure at the core of one of the mosques, he says, may date back 600 years.

"The government never cared about this area," he said, "from independence until 2006. As a result none of the houses here was ever properly registered with the central government. And there are inheritance problems growing out of so many different family members having a stake in a single small house. The present reconstruction is providing an opportunity to address these problems."
Standing in for the Lebanese state in Bint Jbeil is the Emirate of Qatar, though its local agent Geti Consultants. Though they've worked out a good working relationship with the political forces on the ground, their role is still an ambivalent one.
"For their own reasons, it was important for the Qataris to be seen as contributing to the well-being of the victims of the Israeli bombings," said Habib Debs, another AUB professor and RU member.

"They were also concerned with the quality of the rebuilding, so that it's not like another Damour [the Chouf village whose post-Civil War reconstruction provides a model for how not to rebuild]. So they want to draw up their own master plan and build the houses themselves. They have tremendous power but they don't want to be seen as in conflict with the people on the ground. They want to be seen as helping."
"The only problem we have with the Qataris," says Bint Jbeil Municipal Councillor Afif Bazzi, "is that they are very slow to act." A civil engineer, Bazzi has been made responsible for the reconstruction and principle liaison with the Qataris. "They take a long time to make their plan and people want their houses to be completed before the winter comes. It's not that we are ungrateful. We are very grateful that they are helping us, for anyone who wants to help because we're alone here. The government has done nothing."

Qatar's financial reserves and good intentions seem to have smothered several problems looming over Bint Jbeil's reconstruction. One of these stems from the fact that the vast majority of the town's expatriate community lives in America. Restrictions on the movement of capital overseas - part of Washington's "war on terror" - has made it difficult for Lebanese expats to remit reconstruction monies back to Lebanon. Qatari largesse has filled the vacuum.

Most of what is known about Bint Jbeil's history derives from scant scholarly work on the town done before the war. "We know the town has an ancient urban heritage," said Debs. "It used to be the site of a Roman-era town. Located where it is in Jabal Amil, it's no surprise that the typology of the houses is unique in Lebanon."
When Debs and his colleagues arrived in Bint Jbeil in the wake of the conflict, they found a treasure in the rubble of the old town. For them, an integral part of rebuilding was finding out what was there to begin with.

On the eve of the summer war, it seems, the town was at its nadir. "Bint Jbeil was never really an agricultural village," remarked Debs. "It has always been a commercial center and, before the frontier was fixed, had strong ties to ... Palestine. Studies suggest that by the 1960s, 90 percent of the families in the town lived in one-room houses. The rest were villas, owned by the landowners. We guess the dominant social relations were quasi-feudal.

"This situation changed completely under Hizbullah. Kamal al-Assaad and these other feudal leaders had been challenged since the days of Musa Sadr and now were removed from the equation. When Hizbullah came on the scene, they brought a social consciousness and social conscience with them," he added.

"On the eve of the summer war, 50 percent of the population had left the old town because the houses were no longer appropriate to their needs. This suggests that, for these residents, the urban heritage was rejected." This movement was part of a wider migration stemming both from the tradition of Lebanese state neglect of regions beyond Beirut and Mount Lebanon and the town's proximity to the Israeli frontier.

"Though the official population of Bint Jbeil is 43,000 people," said Bazzi, "when the summer war began, there were only 7,000 people living in the town. About 60 percent of the population lives in Michigan. Another 20 percent lives in Beirut. This movement began with the first Israeli occupation in 1978 and continued past their withdrawal in 2000."

The RU was bewildered to find that the residents of Bint Jbeil weren't necessarily interested in restoring and preserving the old town. Many residents, Debs observed, "look upon these houses, with their lack of running water and so forth, not as a sign of a rich heritage but a sign of the misery that made it necessary for them to leave in the first place."

This indifference to the heritage of the place informed the reconstruction plan formulated by the Bint Jbeil municipality. "The town council is Hizbullah-controlled but it is also democratically elected," remarked Debs, "so they were the logical body to go through. The mayor, I believe, had a significant amount of maneuver within the party. From the beginning, the municipality took a very pragmatic approach to solving the social problems in the town, and they saw that there was much that wasn't worthy of being preserved."

There was a project formulated by Mayor Bazzi, "which quite understandably stressed the social dimension of the problem," recalled Debs. "We can't restore the town as it was, he argued, because before the war you had entire families living in one room. We can't force them back into one room. The mayor's approach to reconstruction was very progressive-ist: wanting to allot parcels to residents according to their needs rather than based on what history happens to have left them." It would have seen the historic core razed and replaced with six-story apartment buildings.

"It was not just the mayor's plan," said Councillor Bazzi. "It was the whole community's plan to make a new city ... with a rehabilitated underground infrastructure - telephone, water and sewage, everything. Others said that we had to keep the city as it was before the war, to protect the old houses. So we had two plans."
Unfortunately for the RU, the chaotic manner in which the postwar clean-up was conducted tended to favor the municipality's plan over that of the conservationists. It seems that when the Council of the South hired contractors for rubble clearance, they paid them by the square meter, which encouraged some to demolish properties that were damaged but not destroyed - not so difficult if the owners are in Michigan - to maximize profits. Haitham Bazi says 44 homes were knocked down by the Council of the South without the permission of the owners.

"We arrived at Bint Jbeil and saw the bulldozers," recalled Harithy. "Our first task was to stop them but it was complicated. We were working against money, because people were receiving [damage assessments of] $40,000 for demolition but only $12-20,000 for reconstruction. There was no provision for historical preservation. That's something we had to clarify."

There was ample dissent to the original Council of the South/Khatib wa Alami assessments, so much so that the Qataris decided to make their own. "There was a discrepancy between the number of houses surveyed. As soon as the Qataris saw the discrepancy, they stopped the survey and decided to deal with people directly."
"Jihad al-Binaa also made a damage estimate," said Harityh, "but it was huge and very difficult to manipulate. It was recognized that when the Qataris made their own estimate it was an expression of their lack of confidence in the Council of the South estimate."

It is difficult, though, to find a consensus opinion as to whether assessments privileged some recipients over others, as one prevalent critique would suggest.
"We don't have these problems here," said Councillor Bazzi. "The original damage assessment was 90 percent correct. The damage was so great in Bint Jbeil ... You will always have a 5-10 percent difference. And human beings, they sometimes complain just to get more than they've been given. There are different people who've been making rumors about the assessments being wrong, but they're just rumors."
Speaking to a journalist from The Daily Star earlier this spring, Geti Consulting head Christian Comair corroborated Bazzi's reading, saying the Qatari assessment more or less agreed with that of the Council of the South.

Haitham Bazzi's main criticism of the assessments was that there was no co-ordination and that the payment of indemnities was needlessly complicated.

"The Council of the South made the first round of damage assessments and gave them to the Qataris," he said. "Then the government sent Khatib wa Alami to oversee the allotment of compensation. Jihad al-Binaa was also involved in the process."
He said Khatib wa Alami brought too much paperwork to the process - demanding that people present all manner of verification before receiving their disbursement. "The Qataris then made their own assessment," he smiled. "They compared theirs with the council's and, in a given case, went with whichever one had awarded the higher sum."
Harithy and her colleagues found the municipality was not anxious to cooperate with her plan to stop the bulldozers. "They were sympathetic but uncooperative at first. Our plan was more complicated that they were interested in. [The municipality] could have stopped the Council of the South if they wanted. They didn't. So we went to see Nabih Berri."

Berri wasn't inclined to help. Members of the municipality then arranged for the RU to see Hizbullah's Southern commander, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk.

"He was very frank," Harithy recalled. "'This we can't help you with,' [Qaouk told us]. The party's priority was to give the residents of the town what they want: to be back into their houses as soon as possible. This can be good and bad. The municipality was approaching people on a one-to-one basis. If you do this, you can get confusion ... The party wasn't interfering in this process - they delegated responsibility to the municipality. What got things going for us was the demolition of Ikhsan Sharara's house. It was done without his approval and he threatened to bring legal action ... After that Qaouk gave us his full backing."

"We suggested to the municipality that the difference between the Israeli and Lebanese villages demonstrates the greater Arab heritage on this land," said Debs. "Many people on the council, heard this argument, Hizbullah included. Howayda pointed out to Qaouk that Israel had destroyed the old city in the final days of the war and that if he let the bulldozers continue they would finish the work the Israelis had started. He stopped the clearances immediately."

"When you use their own language against them," said Harithy, "they act."
"After making consultations and research," said Councillor Bazzi, "we decided to rebuild the old town as it was before, with the help of the Qataris and the professors and students from Beirut.

The difference between the two sides of the debate, he said, stemmed from misapprehensions about the degree of damage that had actually fallen on Bint Jbeil. "In the first picture," he said, "the one made in the first two days after the war stopped, everything looked completely destroyed. But the people who thought this ... aren't engineering specialists.

"They thought it would be better for the people with houses in the old town to build new ones. Now, with the help of the Qataris, we're working on a plan to rebuild the houses that were completely destroyed, and rehabilitate the ones that were partially damaged."

Bazzi betrays no resentment over Hizbullah intervening in favor of one reconstruction plan over another. "Hizbullah are part of our community," he said. "Their role is very positive in trying to find and do what's best for the people.
"It's untrue that the party simply tells people what's best for them. When the people found out that rebuilding their houses would take a very long time, Hizbullah were the first to ask 'What are you waiting for? These people need to go back into their homes. You can't go against what the people want.'"




The plan for the old town




BINT JBEIL: "If you have the money to start with," says Haitham Bazzi, "it will take three years to finish this project."

Bazzi is the director of the Bint Jbeil office for the Committee for the Preservation of the Historic Town, an NGO run by urban planner Nasser Shafieddine. Bazzi says he and his 23-person team are in the midst of doing something that has never been done before - verifying the ownership of the houses in Bint Jbeil's old town as a prelude to restoring the quarter.

He says that of the 2,800 homes damaged and destroyed in Bint Jbeil during the summer war, 1,032 of these were in the old city. Of the surviving structures, 109 of them are 50 square meters in size or smaller. Another 160 are 51-100 square meters; 68 more are 101-150 square meters; 73 are 151-200 square meters; 37 are 201-250 square meters.

Many of the houses in the old core were never registered with the state, a function of the Beirut government's tendency to neglect the outlying regions of the country.
His team must interview all the neighbors who have properties surrounding the building in question and ask them to individually verify the deed-holder's claim that he actually is the property owner. They must then encode the testimony on a government form called the Elem wa Khabar. If, as is often the case since the summer war, the residents neighboring the house are in America, he has to ask one of Bint Jbeil's 11 mukhtars to contact them and fill out the Elem wa Khabr on his behalf. It is a long process.

Bazzi says he's trying to find a way to fund a second year of rent for 115 families whose houses in the historic core he wants to restore. He is currently in talks with the Qataris to convince them to finance the restoration of the oldest of these.

"The question," says architect Habib Debs, "is how to rebuild so that the peoples' lives could be improved. We noted that the surviving historic houses tended to be clustered together, so we suggested that outside these clusters the municipality work toward higher densities, perhaps up to three stories, but to do so in a sensitive manner so they don't destroy the architectural spirit of the place."

Debs and his colleagues in the AUB Reconstruction Unit suggested "a pilot project, where these three-story apartment buildings would be provided underground parking that would service not only the residents of the building but the surrounding residences as well. We also proposed to reorganize traffic in the old town, to pedestrian-ize certain areas in order to loosen up the traffic."

Of course it doesn't make any sense to take such pains restoring the old core if the space isn't brought back to life economically.

"We were really interested in working to revive the economic base of the city," Debs says. "At present, there are very few job opportunities there. The main economic engine was the Thursday market, which used to be in the old town, but then gradually moved out to the main axis of the new village. This caused problems for those people who have offices there. Our proposal was to move parts of the souq back to the old town. At the same time, we suggested hat the municipal authorities move to the old town, even if only a symbolic presence."

Bazzi walks you over to a plan for the urban renewal of the Bint Jbeil. Dating from 1969, it is the blueprint the municipality would like to have used to impose a regular urban grid on the town. He points out how many properties would have to be destroyed if that plan were pursued today. "Our team is doing the work of the government," he says. "What we're doing now has never been done before. Solidere [which saw a private real estate company expropriate private property in Beirut's downtown core in return for company shares] was wrong. Damour [the Chouf village where unregulated rebuilding saw the process left largely incomplete] was wrong. Our approach is the only one that fulfils the people's needs."



Copyright (c) 2007 The Daily Star
 
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