Dazed Refugees Flood Beirut

Lebanon is facing a vast humanitarian crisis, with the displaced estimated at 500,000.

By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 19, 2006

BEIRUT — Nonstop battles between Israel and Hezbollah have wreaked a massive humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, driving as many as 500,000 people from their homes, according to United Nations estimates.

The frazzled refugees who have flooded Beirut are struggling to find food, water and medicine. They sleep chockablock in city parks, abandoned basements and sweltering schools in the capital.

Traumatized and disoriented, many of them stagger in from the country's south or Beirut's southern suburbs. They are safer here in the capital, but they are also living without clean drinking water, showers or a change of clothes.

"Where will we go now?" asked Ibtesam Srour, 36, who had taken shelter in a Beirut school after her home on Beirut's outskirts was flattened in a missile strike.

Srour's eyes brimmed with tears. Her husband was injured in the attack, as were several other family members.

"We're not getting medicine," she fretted. "They come and ask what we want, write it down and leave."

Tens of thousands of Israelis also have fled their homes, to escape Hezbollah rocket attacks, but they have not suffered the food, water and medical shortages facing the Lebanese.

Lebanon's government has opened the schools of Beirut to the sudden wave of refugees, but many of the shelters are being run by the cadres of Hezbollah, along with a few nongovernmental organizations. Across the city, vignettes of despair play out against a backdrop of playgrounds, blackboards and lunchrooms.

As the afternoon heat presses down, the sour stench of sweaty skin, soiled diapers and dirty clothes fills the classrooms. Babies wail, children scream, adults snap at one another and weep.

An old man and his grandchildren arrived at a crammed schoolhouse near central Beirut with injuries suffered in the air raids, but there was no doctor. An old woman fainted; an ambulance was summoned but it never came. There were no ambulances left to come.

"They came here with the clothes on their backs, and the crisis is deepening every day," said Mazen Ismael, a teacher who volunteered to run one of the shelters on behalf of the family of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri. "The situation has gotten so bad that we're truly afraid of disease."

The country has fallen so deep into chaos that it's almost impossible to know the extent of the humanitarian troubles. Entire neighborhoods have been drained of their residents.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday released an estimate of 500,000 displaced Lebanese. The agency, which did not explain how it arrived at the figure, also said it was sending as many as 11 more staff members to Lebanon.

Isolated by its crippled airport, blockaded seaports and bombed roads, Lebanon has seen its food and medical supplies dwindle to dangerously low levels. Officials are struggling to accommodate the massive waves of the displaced and reach people left in warfare-racked areas. They are also keenly aware that even towns that have escaped the bombings will soon run out of basic commodities.

As the crisis deepened this week, Lebanese officials said Israeli bombs hit the nation's largest milk factories, a major food factory and an eagerly awaited aid convoy that was making its way toward Beirut from the United Arab Emirates.

"It's a very serious escalation," Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad said. "We were putting a lot of hope on the milk factories, to get milk for children and elderly people."

An Israeli military spokesman denied targeting the factories and aid trucks. Only Hezbollah facilities and vehicles believed to be transporting weapons were struck, he said.

The most harrowing reports emerged from the Hezbollah-dominated southern region closest to the Israeli border, where residents have been trapped in bomb shelters and basements for nearly a week while earth-shaking battles raged outside.

With the network of roads eviscerated by Israeli bombs, villages have run out of food, Lebanese officials said, adding that hunger had begun to set in.

"We can't meet their daily needs. There's no food, and the logistics are very difficult to send them food," said Freddy Yarak, an advisor to the Social Affairs Ministry. "We're having problems with the malnutrition of babies."

Most of the refugees are poor and working-class. They have abandoned their homes, lost track of family members and spent days huddled in shelters.

"I'm very, very tired. I want to sleep but I can't," said Ali Assem, 48, who packed up his six children and drove to Beirut from the southern city of Tyre last week. "They only give us food once a day, and we're hungry."

One of Assem's daughters uses a wheelchair. She sat alone in a schoolhouse corridor Tuesday, watching children file up and down the staircase.

"She doesn't cry," her father said, "but she's shocked every time a bomb falls."

Sometimes firefighters come by the school where the family is staying and refill the water tanks outside. But the water isn't suitable for drinking, and many of the refugees have come down with bacterial infections. There are 15 toilets for 700 people.

In another shelter, an old man sleeps sitting up against the schoolhouse wall, calloused feet stretched bare before him, fingers working the empty air as if he has prayer beads. At his side stretches another man, fast asleep on his stomach, flies crawling over his skin.

The men didn't have the soggy slabs of foam used in many of the shelters; they slept on sheets of hard foam, the kind that would be used to pack television sets in the United States. Others slept on the floor, or atop a thin blanket.

A tour of Beirut's shelters offers a revealing look at the power of Hezbollah. Known for its social and charity network as well as its powerhouse political party and its militia, the Shiite Muslim group has once again eclipsed government efforts: Many of the facilities are being run by Hezbollah. The group says it is collaborating with the government at the shelters, but representatives of the government are generally not present.

"Because this war is against Hezbollah, this is our legal obligation," said Jihad Akil, 45, a Hezbollah activist who was overseeing a Beirut schoolhouse sheltering hundreds of people. "It's also our religious obligation."

The government hasn't been able to determine how many people have been displaced, officials said Tuesday. The figure is at least 70,000, probably much higher and rising all the time, estimated Yarak, the social affairs advisor.

When the United Nations investigated, it found 60,000 people displaced in a single valley in the Chouf mountains, the office for refugees said. Of those, 20,000 were sleeping in public buildings; the rest where staying with friends and family.

Lebanese are also among the 100,000 people who have fled into Syria.

Despite good intentions, aid organizations have been floundering in their efforts to deliver help. The bombing has been too heavy, the crisis too sudden, the infrastructure too broken.

"No Hezbollah, no Red Cross, no government," said Mohammed Ali, 40, a grocer who has stuck it out at home despite the bombings in his suburban Beirut neighborhood. "Nobody has brought us so much as a kilo of water."

The streets of Ali's neighborhood, which is home to Hezbollah's offices, were deserted Tuesday. A few residents stood on the edge of the road, fidgeting nervously while they scanned the crater-filled streets for a taxi. Most young men who'd been sent on behalf of their families, they clutched plastic bags stuffed with a change of clothes.

"There was no more house," said Hussein Abu Yehiya, an engineering student who had made his way back to the neighborhood from a shelter at a schoolhouse. "The cupboard was intact, but we had to pull the rubble off of it."

At the schools, families struggled to make themselves at home. Barefoot boys played soccer in a concrete yard. Girls dangled from monkey bars, their heads swathed in Islamic veils.

A chaotic weaving of children's voices spilled out into the afternoon through open windows. Women washed clothes in buckets in the schoolyard, hanging them to dry on the bushes.

Under a flimsy strip of corrugated tin propped up by beams, middle-aged men and women crammed themselves into tiny chairs to smoke cigarettes and trade gossip.

"This was something we did not expect," said Aniya Salman, 34.

Salman and her five children spent the first nights of the bombardment sleeping in an alleyway alongside their apartment house in a southern suburb of Beirut; it was the closest thing they had to a bomb shelter.

"My children were very frightened, saying 'Israel is going to kill us,' " Salman said, her children pressing curiously around her. "There wasn't any power. The strikes and bombs were so strong we couldn't hear anymore."

Her 11-year-old daughter, Sama, tucked her chin shyly into the neck of her hijab and hugged herself tight. Her face was round, the fabric of her blouse embellished with rhinestone hearts.

"I thought we were going to die," she said. "It was like thunder, but stronger."

Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem contributed to this report.