samedi 5 août 2006

Three Days to Safety: A Story of Survival from Beirut (By David Snyder)

Framed by a blue head scarf, her features drawn from the anxiety of the previous weeks, Wafa Saed’s face is the face of the war in Lebanon. A divorced mother of three young boys, Wafa and her family are among the more than 900,000 Lebanese civilians displaced by the fighting here, many of them – like Wafa – filling the schools and garages of Beirut, seeking shelter from ongoing Israeli air strikes.

That she made it here at all speaks to the desperation many in the southern part of the country are now feeling.

“I walked with my three sons from 6 in the morning until 10:30 in the evening,” Wafa said of her flight from Beit Jubail, a village in southern Lebanon engulfed by the fighting in the opening days of the war. “While we were walking on the road we found destruction, and people killed.”

Like thousands of others displaced by the fighting, Wafa and her family headed towards the relative safety of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital city. Though rocked nightly by Israeli air strikes, most of them concentrated in the southern suburbs of the city, Beirut remains relatively secure – a far cry from the scenes of destruction Wafa experienced on her flight from the south. Three days after leaving, Wafa and her family stumbled, exhausted, into the heart of the city.

“They received me here and took care of us,” Wafa said. “I hadn’t eaten in four days, so I started crying when I arrived here.”

Here is a school in central Beirut, used now as a collection center for 350 people displaced by the war. Run by Caritas Lebanon, the collection point is of one of hundreds of public sites around Beirut now teeming with the displaced victims of the conflict. Though cramped – Wafa and her three sons share a single school room with 10 other family members – such sites allow at least a measure of protection, along with whatever food, water, medicines and supplies can be distributed by aid agencies and private citizens to those in need.

To assist in that effort, agencies like Caritas Lebanon have thus far provided support to more than 85,000 people, much of it distributed through small centers like the one now sheltering Wafa and her family. With only a handful of international aid agencies present in Lebanon, and with insecurity making movement around the affected areas impossible, the bulk of the aid effort in Lebanon thus far has been handled by local agencies, going literally door to door in some cases to collect what contributions they can from local residents.

As fighting continues in Lebanon, the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Fuel shortages now threaten much of the country, and long lines appear at those gas stations that have fuel to sell, limiting each customer to no more than 20 liters worth of gas. Worse, heavy fighting further south, where an estimated 50,000 people remain trapped by the conflict, prevents aid agencies from reaching those in need. Though host families in and around Beirut have taken in literally hundreds of thousands of friends, relatives, and in some cases complete strangers, hundreds of thousands more now shelter in the public spaces of the city. One super market in central Beirut now has 1,700 people crowding its underground parking garage. Conditions can only worsen if the war continues.

But sitting on a wooden school bench back at the school, Wafa says that even the nightly air strikes in Beirut cannot compare to the horrors of what she and her family lived through in the opening days of the war. After a night that resounded with explosions, Wafa looks down at her young son and offers a worrying glimpse of reality for many now living in Beirut’s displaced centers.

“The children didn’t even wake up last night,” Wafa said. “Here, it’s almost luxury for them.”