Lebanon's epic scheme to bandage its wounds: The government plans to send 350,000 refugees back to their homes in mixed-religion areas, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut

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AT A time when Serbian and Croatian militias are 'ethnically cleansing' their Balkan villages, the Lebanese government should be receiving the world's acclaim this week for its decision to do the opposite - by returning more than 350,000 people of mixed religions to the homes they were driven from during the 15-year civil war.

But this being Lebanon - and this being an election year - the epic plan to bandage the final wounds of the Middle East's most tragic internal conflict are not receiving quite the welcome from the people of Lebanon that might have been expected.

First, the facts. The estimated number of Lebanese who fled - or were driven - from their homes between 1975 and 1990 comes to more than 350,000, perhaps a tenth of the population. The Ministry of Housing believes that 86,571 homes were demolished during the conflict, 50,000 of them deliberately dynamited by militias to prevent their inhabitants returning.

The cost of reconstructing these dwellings is put at dollars 754m ( pounds 397m) and the cost of building new homes at dollars 1.6bn. The government has no funds to match these figures. Are returning refugees to live in tents?

Now, the politics. Syrian troops, as any Lebanese will tell you, control well over half of Lebanon. And Syria would like parliamentary elections to take place this summer - under the terms of the Taif agreement and while Syria is still 'protecting' Beirut with its troops. The pro-Syrian Lebanese government agrees with Damascus.

But a hard core of Christian Maronites are encouraging their co-religionists to boycott the poll unless displaced civilians are first returned to their homes, a process which, they reckon, cannot be completed by the autumn - when the Syrian army is scheduled to withdraw from Beirut to a line east of the city. So, if the government wants to persuade the hardline Christians to give legitimacy to the election during the Syrian presence, the displaced have to go home.

Third, the reality. 'I went to look at my old house in east Beirut a few hours ago,' a Lebanese Muslim friend - driven from his family home in the Christian sector in 1975 - said on Wednesday. 'Most of my furniture had been looted, but the people living in the house were friendly and Christian neighbours greeted me as if I was their family. But I arranged to sell the building. I want to legitimise the situation and get compensation, because it will be many years before we can live together again.'

Last, the cynicism. Many villages were destroyed by militia leaders who are now in the government. Hundreds of Christian homes in Jiyeh were dynamited on the orders of Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader. Hundreds of Druze homes in the Chouf were wrecked by the (Christian) Phalange.

And among the Phalangist leaders is Elie Hobeika, accused by the Israelis of leading the Phalangist murder squads that slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila in 1982. Mr Hobeika denies the allegation. But Mr Hobeika is now the Lebanese minister in charge of . . . returning displaced persons to their homes.