Refugees overwhelm Lebanon

As fighting intensifies, relief efforts focus on 700,000 displaced Lebanese civilians.

Once the enchanting tree-lined preserve of sweethearts and families alike, Beirut's small Sanaya Park has been turned into a campground by hundreds of Lebanon's war refugees.

"God help us, we did not even take our shoes," cries Halima Doughan, who brought her eight children here when the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict erupted July 12 and bombs fell close to her home near the airport.

As workers Tuesday assembled water and shower facilities – bracing for swelling numbers coming here as on-the-ground fighting spreads – the displaced know they are just one small part of a severe humanitarian crisis now engulfing Lebanon.

In hardest hit areas, the level of destruction resembles that of the Chechen capital Grozny. The UN estimate of 700,000 displaced resembles, in scale, the mass exodus from Rwanda in 1994, Kosovo in 1999, and for years from Sudan and Central Africa.

Southern Lebanon and parts of the southern suburbs of Beirut – all Hizbullah strongholds – have becoming virtually empty of people. UN and Lebanese officials estimate that some 70 to 80 percent of the population south of the Litani River – the line beyond which Israel told people to evacuate – have gone.

"You can't send assessment teams, because a dead aid worker is not a benefit to anybody," says Khaled Mansour, the chief UN spokesman in Lebanon. "So nobody knows exactly how many are still there, or exactly their needs. But we know pieces of the puzzle: places that need food, or water, or that need to bury bodies."

The scale of human misery inflicted by just three weeks of war is creating new stress on a society that is being forced to resurrect survival instincts honed by 15 years of civil war in the 1970s and 80s.

In the Sanaya park, food is short, and often bought with dwindling cash. Water comes from large plastic UNICEF cisterns, placed beside the now-dry park fountain. A first-aid tent provides donations from those living in neighboring apartment blocks, who watch the refugee sprawl from their balconies.

The fighting, during which Israel has shelled fleeing civilian vehicles, relief convoys, and ambulances, has complicated aid efforts. Tuesday, Israeli warplanes continued to pound southern Lebanese villages and and Israeli soldiers battled Hizbullah fighters. On Monday night the Israeli Security Cabinet decided to expand the ground offensive some four miles into southern Lebanon.

The UN estimates that at least 750 Lebanese civilians have died so far and 3,200 have been wounded. Some 200,000 people have fled the country during Israel's bombardment with tens of thousands of shells and bombs and Hizbullah's strikes against northern Israel with some 1,700 rockets.

That level of violence and destruction has resulted in a relief scramble in this country where war-time emergency teams left years ago. Israel's declared 48-hour suspension of airstrikes, meant to enable more people to flee and to get aid into the south, has barely changed the relief equation, the UN and relief workers say.

Three UN convoys made it to needy southern points of Naquora, Rmeish, and Tibnin Tuesday; two convoys made it to Qana and Tyre Monday. On Sunday, Israel did not allow a convoy to Marjayoun.

But the UN has the capacity for six convoys a day, which add up to 30 to 60 trucks, each one carrying 15 to 20 tons of supplies. The World Food Program is bringing its own trucks in via Syria, to set up a more secure pipeline.

Despite these humanitarian efforts, UN offices were ransacked by hundreds of violent protesters Sunday, in the aftermath of an Israeli air strike on Qana, which killed 65 civilians who had been sheltered in a basement. At the UN, lobby windows were smashed and a fire was started on the first floor.

"If you want to increase aid to people, there must be a cease-fire," says Mr. Mansour. "We don't even have a safe corridor system [agreed with the Israelis for the south]. Approval must be done convoy by convoy."

Each time approval means the Israeli military officially "concurs" with a UN request put forward in Jerusalem, though it is no guarantee of safe passage. Even with such an approval, when the first convoy to roll reached its destination a week ago, an Israeli air raid struck 500 yards away.

"Now the main difficulty is the roads," says Mansour, noting that UN drivers are now being paid three times their normal fee. "Just try to find a [local] trucker who will take his truck full of wheat flour or canned beef to the south."

Lebanon is also facing a severe fuel shortage, which aid workers say has already led to the closure of some hospitals in the south that have been on generator power for weeks.

Before the war, the economy was kept afloat by tourism, but Lebanon imports 90 percent of its food supply and nearly all of its energy needs – a dependence that now means rising prices, long gas lines, and regular power failures.

Half of the displaced are estimated to have found refuge with extended families or in other homes. Others, like the Darwish family, only use up some of that goodwill, expecting that the days they spend on their thin mattress at the downtown park could stretch on and on.

The family held out for five days of Israeli shelling, then a single rocket ripped through their cramped neighborhood south of Beirut, smashing all their windows and turning their lives upside down.

Khodar Darwish says his wife and four small children shower at his sister's nearby apartment every four days. Food comes from the parents of his wife, Sahar, who also live nearby.

But the stress of the war is growing – even for those here who live well compared to those still trapped in the south – and for many it turns to politics. "We supported Hizbullah before, and now we support them more every day," says Sahar. "All people say like this."

Such sentiments even impact the unborn. Najah Asef is six months pregnant. A small silver kettle steams on top of a propane gas tank in her patch of park beside a stack of sleeping mattresses. She does not blame Hizbullah for sparking the fighting by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. Instead she idolizes them for their resistance, to the point where she jokes about calling her unborn baby "Rad," after one of the Hizbullah rockets.

The displaced at the park say they are grateful for the local welcome, and are among thousands who are staying in schools, theaters, and other public places. But tensions are expected to rise, in Lebanon's multiconfessional society, as needs and more people vacating their homes arrive at points north.

"There is a saying in Arabic: 'When the wound is still hot, you don't feel it,' " says Issa Goraieb, the former editor and now lead editorial writer for the French- language L' Orient Le Jour newspaper.

"We are still enraged [by the fighting], and thinking of Hizbullah giving hard blows to Israel, but we have many pressures," says Mr. Goraieb. "For the moment, we are not thinking about the cost. But the bill will be overwhelming. Just think of all the people fleeing the south, to empty the region. Where will they go? Imagine the destruction. Who will help rebuild?"

Lebanese are "living with a nightmare of the day after, and it will be even harder to sustain than the war," adds Goraieb. "People are thinking of staying alive, of keeping enough bread, of gas in our cars, but the bill will have to come ... [and] it could be the end of unity in Lebanon."

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