Lebanon's Displaced Thousands


ALONG the shady, eucalyptus-lined banks of the Awali River, hundreds of people camp in squalid conditions. They are the muhajjarin - the displaced. These are the poorest of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled Beirut in recent weeks to escape the shelling. Lacking tents, they sleep on the river bank, each family screening off a few square feet with blankets for minimal privacy.

Already, both the refugees and international relief organizations worry about what will happen if winter arrives before a cease-fire allows them to return home.

Most families here are from poor, densely populated Sunni Muslim areas of west Beirut which have been badly shelled.

``I came here a month ago with my wife and five children,'' says Walid Rajab. ``Our house was damaged in the shelling. We tried going back last week. But there was another bombardment, and our neighbor across the street was killed. So we fled again.''

Nobody knows exactly how many people have flooded out of Beirut since the fighting between Syrian troops and the mostly Christian Lebanese Army commanded by Gen. Michel Aoun erupted on March 14. But relief agencies estimate the figure at around half a million from mainly Muslim west Beirut, and perhaps 175,000 from the Christian east.

Local officials in Sidon say about 60,000 people swamped their area in successive waves. Many found shelter with relatives or friends. But about 10,000 others have had to take refuge in schools or other public buildings, or are camping out along the Awali and Zahrani rivers and on nearby seashores.

``We have distributed emergency food relief parcels to about 2,000 families, and for the most needy we have supplied some blankets and kitchen sets. We are planning more substantial aid if they are still there when winter comes,'' said Kichel Dufour, the International Red Cross's delegation chief in Lebanon.

All 21 government-run schools in the Sidon area have been given over to the Beirut refugees. The schools themselves should be opening soon for the local children, but will clearly be unable to do so if the refugees have still not managed to go home, as they all say they plan to do once the fighting stops. The Sidon relief committee is drawing up a plan to use the private schools, which have not been occupied by the displaced, on a two-shift system. Private pupils would be taught in the mornings, state students in the afternoons.

Many of the refugees complain about poor sanitation in the schools. Awali campers say they have no sanitation. The only outlet there is the river itself, where children splash and swim. Aid officials have now piped in a supply of clean water.

Hardest hit are the many people like Mr. Rajab, a driver and vegetable vendor, who are paid by the day rather than receiving regular wages or salaries. ``It's enough to make you turn to crime,'' he says, his face creased with worry as he watched his children play beside the Awali. ``How else can we keep going? All our savings are spent, and I am not earning anything.''

The same thought has occurred to international aid officials, concerned with the wider impact of the protracted dislocation that has taken place.

``A long-term dislocation like this will certainly create new social and psychological problems,'' adds Mr. Dufour.

``The Lebanese are used to being displaced for short periods. But this war has been raging around Beirut for six months, and that is something new. If it goes on, it will create long-term problems for the development of children, and psychological problems both for them and their parents,'' Dufour says.

Even if peace were to break out tomorrow, aid officials say the poor on both sides of Beirut will continue to bear a crushing burden. Apart from everything else, an estimated 15,000 homes have been badly damaged by the shelling.

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