Between July and September 2006 we published a blog from the humanitarian response in Lebanon. This was written by firstly Shaista Aziz from Oxfam's Rapid Response Team and secondly Harriet Binet, a Media Officer for Oxfam who arrived in Lebanon one month after the hostilities began, to assist the Rapid Response Team.
- Will "the luck ever smile" on Lebanon? -- 1 September 2006
- Deadly harvests in southern Lebanon -- August 24, 2006
- Healing Lebanon -- August 18, 2006
- The storm before the calm -- August 14, 2006
- Living under the shadow of terror -- 11 August
- The children are scared and traumatised -- 8 August 2006
- The Mercury's rising in Beirut -- 7 August 2006
- The clock is ticking -- 4 August 2006
- Superman in downtown Beirut – 3 August 2006
- Sleepless in Beirut -- 31 July 2006
- Remembering Qana -- 30 July 2006
- A long and tense 24 hours in Beirut -- 30 July 2006
- We need help from the outside world and we need it now -- 28 July 2006
- Waiting in Damascus -- 27 July 2006
Twelve-year-old Ahmad from the southern town of Borj Qalaouiye represents the bright future for Lebanon. He, and his family, survived a month-long war and he's looking forward to going back to school. He is lucky, his school, and his home are still standing. "My favourite subjects are maths, physics and chemistry," he says proudly in very good English. "And when I grow up I want to be a professor of electronics and chemistry."
When I met him, he and his mates were playing in the street near his home with a fragment of an Israeli bomb the size of a dinner plate.
It's the third week of the ceasefire and UN peacekeepers are filing into the south, but Lebanon it is still a country under siege. Ahmad pointed to the sky to tell me there was an Israeli drone overhead. I had noticed a faint buzzing sound, similar to that of a model aircraft, but it hadn't really registered. When I concentrated it was clearly audible, but too high to spot. Ahmad said the drone had been flying overhead constantly for the past 24 hours. He knew full well that if the spy plane identified a "target" it could unleash two missiles powerful enough to destroy a car, and anyone in it, but he didn't seem too perturbed. How children cope with the stresses and strains of war is beyond me.
Though not quite the size of Northern Ireland, Lebanon is doing its best to return to "normal" but faces a long and painful recovery phase. People say the war has set the country's development back by 15 years, others say 30, others say more.
Compounding the problems is Israel's refusal, in the face of calls by the UN, to end the sea and navel blockade. Basically, Israel controls the skies over Lebanon and its sea-lanes, deciding who can and cannot enter the country. The blockade is crippling the economy like a patient starved of oxygen.
An Oxfam team of engineers visited Ahmad's town to talk to the local municipal leader about the condition of the town's water supply. Bomb damage has caused a range of problems from cracked pipes, damaged water pumps, destroyed reservoirs and generators. Oxfam engineers needed to assess the damage before deciding the best way to work with the community to fix the problems.
In Ahmad's town, petrol to run their emergency generator that powers the water pump was what was needed most. Oxfam will pay for some fuel deliveries. There have been chronic fuel shortages because the Israeli army appears to have targeted petrol stations in its bombing raids. In the city of Baalbek, to the north-east of Beirut, one road was untouched with the exception of three petrol stations picked out with precision. A short way out of the city, two industrial sites were also singled out for special attention by Israeli war planes - a dairy plant and a ceramics factory, both important employers in an economically depressed region. Also in the Bekaa valley, the $82 million Liban Lait milk factory was destroyed in an Israeli air strike stripping milk farmers of a market. Apparently, in the past year or so the company had won a contract to supply the UN with dairy products which for the previous 30 years had been held by Israeli companies. I was astounded to see these buildings so obviously targeted.
In a nearby town another business had been hit - this time a chicken farm. The farm was the size of a football pitch and housed thousands of chickens under corrugated iron, which now lay shredded and strewn across the site. The owner of the farm wasn't around when it was hit. He has now lost his livelihood and left the town, according to a local official.
The rotting carcasses of animals combined with the hot humid climate has caused a major problem with flies and other pests.
In three villages in southern Lebanon Oxfam has trained 14 local people to use of environmentally friendly pesticides to help bring the problem under control. We have supplied fogging machines and insecticides to address the problem. The logic is to prevent problems before they occur. To that end, 1800 hygiene kits, and other cleaning items have been distributed to help people deal safely with normal household rubbish and waste. In the southern town of Srifa, one of many badly bombed villages, the stench of rotting garbage is overpowering. Oxfam will pay a local contractor to come and remove some of the large piles of hazardous waste before it causes health problems.
On the way back to Beirut after two hot tiring days working with our teams in the south I ask our driver Mohammad, 23, about life in Lebanon. As with many young people I spoke to, there is pessimism about the future. Conflict that has plagued Lebanon for so many years has driven much of its best and brightest abroad to places like Australia and Brazil where they are known for their entrepreneurial skills. Mohammad too is looking for a way out of Lebanon, though is torn between pursuing a career and staying to look after his elderly mother and brother. He started out in the hospitality industry and was hoping to move up the ranks but there is little opportunity in a depressed economy. And now the tourists have deserted the hotels and beachside resorts of Lebanon, opportunities are even less.
"Here I can earn enough to eat, to drink but not enough to build a life. I would like to go to Dubai where there are better jobs - I think I will go if I have the chance, if luck smiles on me," Mohammad said.
The Lebanese Government estimates $3.5 billion of structural damage has been sustained with economic losses $15 billion and mounting each day the blockade remains.
International donors gathered in Stockholm this week to discuss funding for the first phase of Lebanon's recovery and more than $USD900 million was pledged. International donors have a patchy record on turning pledges into hard cash so let's hope this money materialises. An injection of funds is desperately needed to help this bruised and battered nation begin its recovery and for young people like Ahmad and Mohammad to have a future in their own country. For once, let's hope the "luck will smile" on Lebanon.
I arrived to work in Lebanon during a strange "twilight period". The ceasefire has been in place for a week and the shell-shocked people are slowly starting to get back on their feet after the ravages of 33 days of Israeli army bombardment. I hadn't travelled to a "ceasefire" zone before, or a war zone for that matter, and had no idea about what to expect. I've come to relieve my colleague Shaista who is exhausted after working for a solid month and during the worst of the bombing.
Soon after arriving, I join a team travelling to the south of Lebanon where villages and towns suffered the worst of the air and ground assaults. On the two-hour trip from Beirut, along the coastal road, we pass bridge after bridge after bridge that has been reduced to a twisted ruin. In between destroyed bridges there are huge craters in the main road, large enough to swallow a small house. This seemingly senseless destruction now causes huge traffic jams as cars, including aid convoys, have to detour onto temporary narrow dirt tracks which skirt around the damaged areas.
The first town in the south we visit is El Qlaia where we talk to three families who have lost their farm and livestock because of the conflict. They were some of the lucky ones because their homes were still standing but their precious crops - a vital source of income as well as sustenance - were destroyed. Looking out across the hills you can see acres of scorched earth, apparently set on fire by Israeli tank fire and artillery.
A kindly old man called George Nahra is a 70-year-old farmer who lost 150 olive trees. The grove used to provide him with around 100 US dollars a month in income but now it's totally destroyed. He can't even enter his grove to start clearing up because it's littered with mines and unexploded ordnance. George said: "I've lived here all my life and put everything into my farm. Now it's all destroyed. This was my life. This farm and livestock gave me the money to look after my sick wife who needs medicine."
Clearly visible from George's house was a huge unexploded missile. It looked around six feet long and was one of three we saw in just one day. The hulking grey mass of a missile was quite awe-inspiring to see close up. It's easy to imagine the power and destruction they unleash as they crash to earth.
The day before I had been sent on a UN safety course for unexploded ordnance, which provides you with very practical advice on how not to get yourself blown up by the assortment of bombs and mines that litter southern Lebanon. I never expected to see so many on my first field trip. Landmines and unexploded cluster bombs dropped by the Israeli army are particularly cruel weapons of war that lie in wait for months or years before claiming innocent victims. These "weapons of mass devastation" now plague local farmers who cannot safely tend or harvest their crops. The crops that need harvesting are now rotting in the ground and others are withering from lack of water.
Travelling further south, near the Israeli border, the physical devastation of the villages was unbelievable. Entire towns had been reduced to piles of twisted metal and shattered concrete. The contents of many homes were spewed out across the streets. What was most shocking was to see the number of children's toys among the rubble - these were just ordinary homes and I couldn't believe there was any method to this madness.
In the town of Tebnine, we met Hussein, a restaurant owner who had five adult sons - two living in Brazil and three in the US. He had an eight tonne bomb dropped on his restaurant. Hussein also was at a loss to explain why someone wanted to bomb his small eatery. "Why did they want to do this to me?" he asked. But like many of the people I met that day they were not giving up. Hussein said he was sorry he couldn't offer us any coffee or food but the bomb had destroyed everything.
In El Khiam our team went to the municipality head office where hundreds of people were queuing from inside onto the street. The people there were desperate for water. Tankers were coming to the village but there wasn't enough storage. Oxfam is now supplying the village with two large capacity water tanks, each one the size of a small swimming pool. Each tank supplies 15,000 people with a daily allowance of 30 litres.
People desperately need all the daily necessities of life - a clean source for drinking water, food, medicines, soaps, buckets and cleaning products. The estimated one million people who fled their homes during the fighting have returned to their villages, or what remains of their villages, mostly in the south. In response Oxfam is scaling up its operations in the south and half of the team has moved from Beirut to a new office just south of Saida.
Two trucks left our warehouse in Beirut early this morning for the south, laden with supplies including 1000 water storage buckets and 250 hygiene kits. More trucks will follow tomorrow. Oxfam has appeals to fund its work over the next three months and I hope that the public respond with typical generosity for innocent victims that have once again been caught in middle of somebody else's war.
Walking through parts of the southern suburbs of Beirut transported me back to when I was in Aceh, Indonesia, days after the tsunami working on Oxfam's response to the disaster. Large parts of the southern suburbs of Beirut no longer exist. They have been wiped out by a massive wave of bombs and missiles dropped over the densely populated area which was home to an estimated 900,000 people before the war.
I spent the morning in the southern neighbourhoods carrying out a needs assessment of the area with the Oxfam team. My colleagues and I walked through roads and streets that are beginning to come back to life again now that the bombs have stopped falling. Huge apartment block and commercial building have been reduced to mangled debris. In many cases the smashed buildings are still smouldering from the aftermath of the attacks on the area. It is estimated that 15,000 housing units have vanished from the area, no longer inhabitable and in many cases reduced to a pile of concrete and steel.
Since the cessation of hostilities five days ago many people have returned to these neighbourhoods to start trying to pick up the broken pieces of their lives. Life is slowly crawling back to the suburbs. Teams of volunteers are trying to co-ordinate a clean up of the area. Many of the shops and supermarkets have reopened.
Oxfam has been providing clean drinking water to people in the area for the past few weeks, sending water tankers in to the neighbourhoods twice a day so residents have access to safe drinking water. The stench from weeks of uncollected rubbish, rotten food and sewage seeping into the streets was unbearable at times, combined with the intensity of the midday sun. I started feeling nauseous.
Walking along the main road, I was shown a building that used to be a school for one thousand students aged 3 - 18 years old, The Ashbal El Sahel school and surrounding areas were heavily bombed during the war. The school is now by and large an empty shell, unsafe for children to study in. Amongst the debris and scattered school exercise books, I met a wonderful woman whose strength, spirit and determination moved me. Barea Hijazi worked in the school for a number of years. It was clear that the school was her labour of love and the students were like her family, both very dear to Barea's heart.
"Look at this place, this used to be a school and now there is nothing left. I feel so much pain seeing my school reduced to nothing. I have no idea how we are going to rebuild the school. I spent nine years of my life working in this building with wonderful children. We were like one big family and now I have no idea where my children are and when they will be able to return to school to receive an education."
Barea and I walked through one of the school's playgrounds now littered with broken glass shattered into fragments by the force of the bombing, bricks and concrete. At the far end of the playground Barea pointed to a massive crater. "See here," pointed Barea. "This is where an unexploded bomb landed, at the back of the school. The devastation all around is amazing, can you imagine how much worse it would have been if the bomb had exploded." Barea shakes her head and pushes a mask on her face to protect her throat and lungs from the dust covering the area.
Barea showed me some of the classrooms covered in dust; many of the walls of the building have collapsed due to the force of the explosions. School desks and chairs snapped in half. "Many of my children have lost their homes. They lived in apartments close to the school - as you can see many of the buildings close by no longer exist."
Since the cessation of hostilities five days ago, the Oxfam rapid response team is accessing areas of this country that were too unsafe for us to travel to because of the bombing. It's only now that we are beginning to understand the true magnitude of human suffering on the ground and the needs of people returning to their neighbourhoods, villages and towns.
An Oxfam Rapid Respond Team consisting of water and sanitation experts, public health and food security specialists are carrying out a four-day assessment of south Lebanon, pushing further into areas in the south including Sidon, West Zawian, East Zawtar, Beint Jbeil and Qana.
I called Oxfam's water and sanitation engineer Manolo to get an update from him on the situation on the ground: "We are in Qana. The level of destruction is shocking. The people here are desperate. They have no water, and many of the people I came across were weeping as today was the day that the victims of the attacks on Qana were buried. I have been making urgent recommendations to my colleagues in Oxfam about the needs on the ground. We need to create a reservoir in this area and start tankering water in for people, and this is what we are working on," explained Manolo.
The UN estimates that over 3,000 items of ordnance were dropped over Lebanon every day over the past thirty-three days of wars. It's believed that 10 per cent of the total amount of ordnance didn't explode, posing a hugely dangerous risk to people returning to these areas and to aid agencies like Oxfam operating here.
Everywhere you look Oxfam faces massive challenges to getting aid to people and communities devastated by the man-made disaster that is war. From the shattered infrastructure - an estimated 600 roads and bridges have been damaged or destroyed during the war - to the shortage of fuel to drive trucks with supplies to the worst affected areas.
Oxfam is committed to assisting people in Lebanon during this emergency and beyond. We are forward planning our emergency and development response for at least two years. It will take a very long time for Lebanon and its population to heal but it's imperative that these people are not forgotten. In the words of Barea Hijazi from Ashbal El Sahel school: "Imagine if this happened to you. I ask the people of the world to open their eyes, open their ears and open their hearts and feel with the people of Lebanon".
[back to top]
I heard the missiles flying across the sky - there were two of them somewhere in the neighbourhoods of Beirut. A few minutes later a loud explosion went off. I looked at the clock on my mobile phone - 6:45 am, less than two hours to go before the ceasefire is implemented. I picked up my phone and sent a text message to my husband, a doctor and aid worker based in Saida, southern Lebanon. He's been there for the past week establishing a field hospital with the Qatar Red Crescent. I wanted to know if he was okay, to hear his voice and find out if the bombing had stopped. The night before there had been very heavy bombing over the area, less than 500 metres from the hospital where he is working. I sensed he was trying to disguise the panic in his voice in an attempt to make me worry less about him, but the fact that he was pretending to be okay made me worry even more. I received a text from him describing the scene in Saida:
Heavy bombing through the night and more this morning. Ceasefire very soon. Take care. See you soon Insh'allah.
I then sent a message to Roland, a friend who works with the ICRC (International Committee for the Red Cross) and is based in Tyre to ask how he was.
Bombing around four am and up to now. I hope it stops around eight. Roland.
I got out of bed and started preparing for work, and hoping that the ceasefire would start as expected today, and that it would hold so that the misery would stop and so that aid agencies like Oxfam can start getting aid to the worst affected areas and help people in need.
It's 5 pm and so far, today has been a calm and peaceful day in comparison to the past thirty-three days of war, and the past particularly scary and disturbing twenty-four hours in Beirut. Yesterday afternoon around 3pm a barrage of twenty-one bombs were unleashed in two minutes on the southern suburbs of Beirut. Huge plumes of smoke started rising from the areas hit and outside on the street there was panic. The sounds of the massive bombs vibrated off the tower blocks of Beirut making the windows rattle in my room.
Simon, the Oxfam team leader called me on my mobile to find out where I was - he told me to make my way to the basement of the hotel as he wanted to get the whole team together and to review our safety. CNN was reporting that Israeli fighter jets were preparing for more strikes over Beirut. I made my way to the basement of the hotel where my colleagues had gathered to hold a meeting. The team decided that we felt safe in the hotel and that we should cancel all our meetings and appointments until the morning, as this was the heaviest bombardment of the city since the war started. We stayed in the basement for a few hours and could hear what sounded like more bombs going off outside.
I received a call from my husband telling me not to worry about the heavy bombing in the city and that I should get used to living in these conditions as this was the reality of war. I told him that I would never allow myself to get used to living like this, living with the fear of bombs and missiles killing and maiming my friends and colleagues in Beirut, destroying countless lives and homes. I believe that all people have the right to live with peace and security. If we value our lives and the lives of the people that we love, then we must also value the lives of others, wherever they are in the world.
The past few days have been very constructive days for the Oxfam rapid response team. We have stepped up the distribution of aid inside the school buildings that we are working in, that house thousands of displaced families. Tomorrow I will accompany Emad and Ayad, Oxfam's logisticians to the port in Beirut where we will be receiving 18 tonnes of specialised water and sanitation equipment sent from the Oxfam warehouse in Oxfordshire last week. The logisticians are busy organising drivers and vehicles to receive the aid. In the coming days we will be working out how to distribute this equipment to improve the lives of many thousands of displaced and vulnerable people.
Yesterday I spent the day with Nabil Tabbal, 25, and Rhona Nsouli, 26, the latest members of Oxfam's emergency team here in Beirut. Nabil and Rhona are Lebanese nationals and students at the American University in the city. The pair specialises in Public Health and Health Education. They are two of the nicest and most dedicated people you could meet. I met them at a distribution centre in Beirut where along with a team of volunteers they were packing hygiene kits supplied by Oxfam to give to displaced people.
"These kits consist of soap, underwear, towels and other essential items you would need to keep clean when you have had to flee your home with only the clothes that you are wearing," explained Nabil.
The team of volunteers packed the items into 250 separate bags that would be distributed to 1,250 people in the Al Irshad school in the Bouj Abi Hawadm western area of Beirut.
The school building was packed with women and children; I asked Rhona where the men were. "Most of the men stayed in their villages to protect their homes, this is traditional in this part of the world. Maybe some of the men are in the army."
I made my way to the first floor of the school following Rhona and Nabil and the volunteers who were distributing the hygiene kits. In one of the classrooms on the first floor I met Mohammed Jabak, 23, and Mariyam Hashim 21, and their first born Fatima Jabak. Baby Fatima is one month old and was born during the war. Fatima is a war baby, born into the chaos and pain of this shattered country devastated by the past thirty three days of the conflict.
"It was very hard for me - she is my first baby and I had to flee from Dahiyeh, (the southern suburbs of Beirut) when the bombing started. My husband and my family left together and now there are twenty three of us living in this classroom," said Mariyam.
"We don't know if our house is still standing, we haven't been able to go back and see as it's too dangerous - the bombs keep falling," said Mohammed. "Before the war I was working in a local take away making sandwiches. We had a simple life, but life was good and Mariyam and I were very excited about becoming parents. Like most people who are about to become parents we were preparing for the arrival of our child when everything changed because of war."
Mariyam unbuttons Fatima's babygrow and shows me her stomach, which is inflamed. "Look at her stomach, she is in pain because I can't breast feed and have the wrong baby formula - I have no choice but to feed this formula to my daughter and it's making her sick".
Mohammed removes Fatima's nappy to show me the extent of her nappy rash, the baby's skin is red and raw and it's obvious that Fatima is in pain.
"We have no money left and I can't afford to buy Fatima nappies, there are many things that she needs. She is a small child but we are displaced and I have no job, I don't know how we will manage," said Mohammed.
[back to top]
It's 5.30 am and I've just had a very rude awakening, care of the Israeli army who are bombing the southern suburbs of Beirut. The first explosion left me feeing disorientated - a few minutes later another bomb went off and then the third, fourth and fifth - all in the space of an hour.
I decided it was time to get out of bed and take the necessary precautions to prevent myself being injured by breaking glass if the bombs landed any closer to the hotel. I opened the patio doors in my room and pulled the curtains tight across the window and then moved away from the window, taking my duvet and laying it on the carpet on the other side of the room. I tried to get some sleep. My phone started bleeping indicating that I had a text message. It was Lina, one of Oxfam's partners telling me that one of the explosions was very close to her home near Chyah, and that she could feel a change in air pressure because of the bomb.
I curled up in my duvet and tried my best to get some sleep, but when you're feeling angry and your mind is racing it is very hard to sleep. Yesterday was the first time in 30 days of this war that three bombs struck Beirut. One hit a lighthouse five minutes from our hotel. The explosion left my ears ringing for a number of hours afterwards. The Oxfam team were called back to our hotel for a meeting to discuss the safety of staff. Our team leader Simon wanted to know how we are feeling about working and living in a country where the war is intensifying on a daily basis. The meeting was also an opportunity for us to take stock of our work in Beirut, two weeks on from when the Oxfam rapid response team arrived in the country.
So far we have managed to distribute water and sanitation equipment to 30 schools housing displaced people in Beirut and we have transported 20 water tanks to the port city of Saida. The Mayor of the city asked Oxfam to help provide clean drinking water for some of the 60,000 people displaced in the city. We have sourced some water pipes and tanks locally that we are pushing out to areas in need through our network of Lebanese partners on the ground. We are aiming to reach 40,000 people sheltering in schools and public buildings displaced by the war.
Tomorrow we expect the cargo from our warehouse in Oxfordshire to arrive in Beirut. On Monday 7 August, a plane containing 18 tonnes of specialised water and sanitation equipment costing 100,000 pounds (GBP) left the UK bound for Lanaca, Cyprus. Oxfam has been coordinating with the United Nations World Food Programme to get our specialised equipment into Lebanon. The port, airport, and many of the roads and bridges in this country have been damaged or destroyed in the past thirty days of war. This has posed huge challenges for aid agencies trying to bring aid into Lebanon and then transporting it to the worst affected areas.
The past fourteen days have been very intense. The Oxfam team has been working from 8:30 am into late evening every day, organising, planning and implementing our response to this emergency. Time drags on here. Often it feels like the film Groundhog Day - each day brings more violence, more bombs, rocket attacks, more pain and misery.
For the past thirty days the Lebanese population has been living under the shadow of terror, wondering and waiting where and when the next bombs will drop. None of us are sure which part of the country will be attacked next, but we know for sure that the war is intensifying. Many of the Lebanese people I've spoken to in the past two weeks are becoming more and more cynical and have stopped hoping for a diplomatic solution to end the horror on the ground.
On the street outside the Marouche take-away sandwich shop in Beirut, I get talking to a young Lebanese student who is studying at the American University down the road from our hotel. Maha is a bright young woman who should represent the future of her country, energetic, passionate and committed. Maha is exhausted by the past thirty days of war and tries hard to control the anger in her voice.
"It's been a month since this war started and honestly we can't see things improving for us Lebanese. Every day the bombs keep falling - all of us are having trouble sleeping - we are being terrorised by the Israeli army in our own country. It's very hard for me to see my country being destroyed. Many of my friends and their families are choosing to leave Lebanon until things improve. I won't leave, this is my country and I have to stay and wait for this war to end."
I wait for Maha to pay for her sandwich so we can continue with our conversation.
"What's the future now for Lebanon?" I ask.
She smiles a weary smile: "Well, we are resilient people - but it's hard to be able to see a future for Lebanon right now. So much has been destroyed and it's going to take a very long time to get our country back to how it was."
I make my way back to the hotel with my lunch. It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon and so far today there has been fourteen explosions in Beirut. Leaflets are being dropped from the skies warning people of further attacks or asking people to evacuate their neighbourhoods.
Once in the office, I call Qaseem Saad who works with NABAA, an Oxfam Quebec partner in Sidon, South Lebanon. I've been having daily conversations with Qaseem who has been keeping me up to date about the humanitarian situation in Sidon.
Qaseem explained: "We are living in a big prison. We face massive difficulties trying to move around our own country with access to Beirut becoming more difficult. The public transport system no longer works. Before the war it would cost one dollar to travel from Sidon to Beirut. Now it costs $250. The prices are going up for everything: vegetables, milk, and petrol. When I come home from work my children cling to me- they never used to do this. They are very frightened as every day Israeli warplanes are flying above the area. The children spend all day watching TV and seeing awful images of death and destruction. Everyone here is frightened we want this war to end and we need it to end now."
It's 4.30pm but it feels like it's much later than that. So much has happened today and who knows how much sleep we will get tonight. I've been following the news from back home in the UK and like most people I'm alarmed at the news of a possible threat to kill large numbers of people in a terrorist plot involving airliners.
Living in Beirut for the past two weeks, I have a good idea of what it feels like to feel threatened by extreme violence. I've met countless people whose lives have been turned upside down in the past thirty days of war - people who have lost family members and friends, their homes and livelihoods to the extreme violence that warplanes, bombs and missiles produce.
[back to top]
Yesterday evening I was sitting in Lina's coffee shop in Al Hamra, Beirut, with two good friends having a coffee and catching up with news when a massive explosion went off somewhere in the city. The coffee shop windows rattled for a few seconds and everyone fell silent, the shock and worry etched on people's faces. My friend Cilina, a Lebanese journalist got on the phone to try and find out where the explosion had gone off whilst Shaheen, one of the Oxfam team members, and I sat still for a few seconds taking in what had just happened and knowing that large numbers of people were now dead or injured in the time that it took for the bomb to hit their homes.
Shaheen looked visibly moved. Having lived in Beirut for five years, like me he is familiar with this country, and like me he's finding it hard to digest what's happening to the streets and neighbourhoods around us on a daily basis, and to the rest of this beautiful country. This is a dirty and horrific war being played out in our living rooms via the twenty-four hour news channel. Day by day I can sense that things are getting worse and more and more dangerous here, and day by day I can sense that people are losing hope for a peaceful solution to this war.
Within twenty minutes Aljazeera started beaming the first images from the neighbourhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut that had been attacked. It's the same images, just different victims. The images are amalgamating into one blur for me and at times it's hard to keep up with the number of Israeli military attacks on this broken country.
I read on the BBC website that the Israeli military had launched 80 separate attacks on Lebanon in one day. It felt very surreal to have heard the massive explosion nearby and to be seeing the aftermath of the attack twenty minutes later live on television. It took me a bit of time to process the two events and as the cameras swept over the slumped bodies of people crushed in a building by the force of the bomb I started feeling sick. People were using their bare hands to try and dig at the crater in the ground, which has swallowed up victims - a woman was pointing and screaming into the camera. The news report said at least forty people had been killed or injured in the attack. I felt numb. Tears started welling in my eyes but I had no energy to cry and besides, what's the point of crying? I've only been here ten days. What right do I have to cry when all around me people are trying act normal and get on with life. I looked at Cilina and Shaheen, both looking pale and withdrawn - we decided it was time to leave and make the short journey back to the hotel.
This morning Shaheen and I took a taxi to visit one of Oxfam's partners, NAVTSS, around fifteen minutes away from our office. I had received a call from Sukaina, the head of the organisation, yesterday telling me that she wanted me to come and visit one of our colleagues who had discovered that her mother, father and sister had been killed when their village was bombed in the south of Lebanon.
Still exhausted by the events of the night before, and indeed the past ten days, I psyched myself up in the taxi to meet our colleague and to get more information about what had happened to her family. Shaheen and I were greeted by Laura, one of the staff members at NAVTSS who led us to the office on the second floor. The office seemed much busier than normal with several children running around the hallway. Laura explained that the office was now housing a number of displaced people and families, as they had nowhere else to go. Laura introduces me to our colleague Mariyam Akeel, 33, and her beautiful daughter Malak (Arabic for angel) aged four years old.
As Mariyam started talking to me about how her family were killed in an Israeli military attack on her village Al Joubein, Malak climbed on to her mother's knee and pushed her face towards her mother kissing her gently as the tears stream down her mothers face.
Mariyam, a widow is left to take care of Malak alone. Three of her family were killed in the attack and the other family members are too busy trying to raise their own children through this war, and don't have the money to feed and take care of two more mouths.
Mariyam tells me that when she heard news of the Israeli soldiers being kidnapped by Hizbollah she knew that Israel would retaliate and the first place the Israeli army was bound to attack was the southern suburbs of Beirut, seen as Hizbollah areas. Mariyam decided she should leave immediately and so she made her way to a relative's house in Beirut. Within days the Israeli military had started attacking the southern suburbs of Beirut and south Lebanon and more relatives arrived at the family home in Beirut.
"I feel very alone and very scared. I have no idea what will happen to my daughter and I know that my parents and sister have died..." Mariyam's voice trails off and she starts sobbing again. Laura takes over and describes how a few days ago Mariyam was contacted by someone from her village to inform her that her parents and sister had been killed when an Israeli military plane had fired a rocket on the house. She was told that the family home had been destroyed in the attack and it was too dangerous to try and search for her family's bodies in order to bury them with dignity.
"I don't know why this is happening to us, I am 33 years old and I have lived through three wars and now my daughter who is four years old, she is living through a war. We are sick of this- what we want is for this to end now so we can try and live. We want peace and we want to live in peace."
"My daughter is very worried all the time, she sees her mother crying and she doesn't know what to do. I am a widow and now I have lost my parents. All I want is for my daughter to have a good future, a good education. What chance do I have to provide for her when our homes and lives have been destroyed?"
Whilst Mariyam is talking to me, a young man walks into the room, he tells me his name is Mohammed Isa and he's 24 years old. Mohammed is from the village of Tirazi in the south of Lebanon. Yesterday he was told that three of his friends who were the same age as him were killed when an Israeli military missile was fired onto their house.
"They were innocent young men, they did nothing wrong and now they are dead," he said. "I can't believe how my life has been turned upside down in the past four weeks. It's the children I worry about. Before this war the children used to draw pictures of trees, the sky, their parents and homes - now they draw pictures of missiles and rockets, crushed cars and buildings. This is a big disaster and the children are scared and traumatised. "
Mariyam adds "I don't want my daughter to hate, I want her to grow up and have a good life, to have a good job and a good future. Now the children are scared and frightened and they can hear the bombs falling from the skies and they know that we parents can do nothing to protect them and it's devastating".
The temperature is rising here in Beirut and it's not just the heat that is rising. As I was making my way back to my hotel room a few hours ago I could hear the couple next door arguing in a very loud voice. Earlier I bumped into the man next door in the hotel reception. I was surprised that he was still here as a few days ago he had told me that he was planning to return to his house five kilometres from Beirut along with his wife and three children. He had been told that it was safe to return to the suburbs of the city. This morning whilst wiping away beads of sweat from his forehead, the man shook his head and explained that he had no idea when he could take his family back home. For the past few days he has been trying to buy a few gallons of petrol so he could drive his family home, the problem is that the price of petrol has rocketed and it's becoming more and more scarce.
"Yesterday I spent two hours waiting at a petrol station trying to buy petrol at 25 dollars a gallon. I waited in the heat and tried my best to be patient. When I got to the front of the long queue I was told that that the petrol station was out of petrol," said the man.
"So what happens now?" I asked him.
"I have no idea. Only God can answer that ......all I can tell you is that all of us have had enough. We are stressed and can't take this stress much longer."
Once I reached my room I switched on the Lebanese news channel where the country's Health Minister was describing how hospitals in Lebanon only have enough fuel for one more week - after that they have no idea how they will keep the generators going.
At the supermarket across the road from the hotel - it's the same story - people arguing and raising their voices and hands in an animated fashion. I've only been living in this city for one week and I feel so drained of energy and life and I really have nothing to complain about as I know I can leave anytime I choose to with my British passport.
Twenty six days into this war and people are losing hope. All sense of normality has vanished from their lives and that's the people that I've met in the relatively safe quarters of Beirut. I have no idea how it must feel to be living in the south of Lebanon where today 2,000 lb bombs are being dropped from the skies by the Israeli military on towns. I try hard not to think about what it must be like to be living in those towns and villages. And the irony of this happening today- the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima isn't lost on me.
Sixty-one years ago today hundreds and thousands of people were wiped off the earth in the flash of a deadly light. Fifty one years later on the same day - Hizbollah fires more rockets into Israel - the TV beaming images of paramedics rushing to the scene of the attack. The injured being placed on stretchers and being rushed into waiting ambulances. All of this going on behind the backdrop of the international community debating the use of possible words for a UN resolution for a ceasefire. The words still missing from the debate so far are the word immediate and ceasefire.
For the past twenty six days Oxfam along with other international NGOs has been calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire so the killing comes to an end and so humanitarian aid workers can get to the worst affected areas to assist people in need. Twenty six days on- and we are still no closer to establishing a ceasefire. My mobile phone kept delivering more messages of despair through the night, the Lebanese news service updating me on the aftermath of the bombs falling and exploding on the shattered south of this country. In the end I decided to switch off my phone - exhausted by the past seven days of being in Lebanon, I have realised just how precious a commodity sleep is. The exhaustion is written on the faces of the whole Oxfam team and our partners who have been working around the clock since day one of this emergency.
My phone is ringing. It's Heather, Oxfam's Security Advisor. She wants to know where I am as there has been an Israeli military strike on the southern suburbs of Beirut. I tell her that I'm in my room writing my blog and will contact other members of the team to make sure they are ok. Our Team Leader Graham phoned Heather to say he had seen two missiles flying overhead whilst he was sitting in the conference room of a hotel where a number of NGOs were meeting.
Amongst the craziness and chaos here in Beirut the team received some good news. Vital water and sanitation equipments has been unloaded from the Oxfam warehouse in Bicester, Oxfordshire, and will be heading out of the UK today and on to Cyprus, bound for Lebanon. This fantastic news has given the whole team a real energy boost and couldn't have come at a better time.
[back to top]
I woke up in the small hours of the morning with my room vibrating to the sound of bombs being dropped on the southern suburbs of Beirut. The bombs continued falling for a number of hours. My mobile phone stated bleeping at the same time, as I started receiving text messages in my inbox from a Lebanese news wire updating me on the awful events as they were unfolding.
04.05 am URGENT:
Israeli warplanes are bombing several targets in the southern suburb of Beirut and Al - Ouzali.
07.37 am URGENT:
Israeli warplanes raided a bridge in Jounieh- Maamelten, northern Beirut.
08.10 am URGENT:
Israeli warplanes hit Al- Madfoun Bridge in Batroun northern Lebanon and Al- Qaroun electricity workstation in Al Bekaa.
The atmosphere is very tense in Beirut and the streets and roads are empty of people. Earlier in the morning I met the Lebanese Foreign Minister whilst doing a TV interview. The minister was joking with the journalists in the room telling them that pretty soon they wouldn't need cars and television news trucks to move around Beirut instead they should think about ordering mountain bikes from London in order to travel around the damaged roads of Beirut.
Day by day the situation on the ground appears to be deteriorating at a rapid pace. More roads and bridges in the north of Lebanon were attacked in the small hours of the morning creating concern amongst aid workers about just how we will be able to bring aid into Lebanon.
This morning I spoke to Oxfam's logistician in Beirut, Ayad Ibrahim, who is responsible for ordering in essential water, sanitation and hygiene equipment so we can push it out to the areas where people are most in need. Ayad is placing orders for pipes, water tanks, tap stands and other specialised water and sanitation equipment costing in the region of 45,000 pounds (GBP). Oxfam is working alongside organisations like the UN World Food Programme to try to source equipment locally so we can get supplies in as soon as possible.
Nothing is straightforward in this emergency and it takes time to work out alternative ways of getting urgent humanitarian supplies into the country. Alongside water and sanitation equipment, Ayad is ordering in essential public health items such as hygiene kits that we will be distributing to people in need. We are holding discussions with other aid organisations to establish the safest and quickest route for us to be able to bring our humanitarian supplies into Lebanon.
I spoke to a doctor and aid worker who arrived in Beirut earlier in the week to work with the Qatari Red Crescent who are trying to establish a field clinic in the south of the country. Yesterday the doctor travelled to Sidon, the third largest city in Lebanon, located in the south of the country that has been badly damaged in the past twenty-four days of the war. In Sidon he met the Mayor of the city Dr Abdul Rahman Bezeri, who estimates there are at least 80,000 people displaced inside the city.
Doctor Salam Ismael from the Baghdad-based medical relief NGO Doctors for Iraq told me: "As a doctor and an aid worker I was shocked by what I saw in Sidon, I visited many centres where displaced people living in cramped conditions. Just as in the rest of Lebanon, displaced people are living in school buildings, sharing with two toilets between two hundred people. The smell from the toilets was so overwhelming that I thought I was going to be sick. The people that I spoke to told me they had been there for weeks and are desperate to return to their homes but have no idea when and if they can return back."
As I'm writing my blog I'm watching Aljazeera and the huge protests around the Muslim/ Arab world where hundreds and thousands of people have taken to the streets after Friday prayers to register their disgust at the ongoing senseless violence, death and destruction inside Lebanon and the Middle East region.
From Pakistan to Iraq massive numbers of people have taken to the streets demanding that the killing comes to an end and calling on western powers to stop meddling in the affairs of the Middle East. And it's not just in the Middle East where people are demanding their voices are heard. I've received countless e-mails from friends and anti-war groups detailing gatherings and rallies around the world calling for peace in the Middle East.
From Iraq to the occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Israel, the Middle East is in turmoil. Many of it's broken people are bleeding and are in pain. The cycle of violence and hatred is reaching dangerous levels and the mistrust and anger toward the west, especially the US and Britain, is deepening on a daily basis.
Yesterday Oxfam held a press conference in the Lebanese capital attended by a number of International NGOs working on the crisis in Lebanon. All the aid agencies spoke with one voice. We need an immediate and unconditional ceasefire so we can unlock the human misery and suffering that is caused by war. Without a ceasefire it's simply too dangerous for aid agencies like Oxfam to reach displaced people in the most dangerous parts of the country, southern Lebanon. The clock has been ticking for the past twenty four days for a political and diplomatic solution to this crisis and from where I'm sitting in Beirut, I can tell you that the killing, the pain and suffering continues.
My phone is bleeping again indicating that I have received a text message:
One Israeli was killed as rockets launched by Hizbollah hit Safed Kiryat Shmona, Naharya and Karmel as sirens go off in northern Israeli cities.
And it goes on
At least 40 persons were killed or injured as Israeli warplanes raid the Kaa region in the Bekka Valley.
URGENT: MESSAGE FROM OXFAM:
We need an unconditional and immediate ceasefire and we need it now. The killing must stop and it must stop now.
The clock is still ticking.
[back to top]
My energy levels are beginning to drop as the fatigue sets in I can feel the stiffness in my neck and shoulders. The combination of a lack of sleep, the heat, information overload and temporarily living in a conflict zone has an impact on you.
Since the Oxfam rapid response team arrived in Beirut on Saturday we've been working around the clock. We've been meeting partner organizations on the ground, making phone calls to partners in the main conflict areas in the south to gather information about the humanitarian needs, and coordinating our relief response with our international NGO's.
This is the third emergency that I've worked on in a year and a half. The challenges that we are facing are immense. The UN estimates that 900,000 people are displaced in Lebanon with a further 150,000 displaced in Syria, this in addition to an estimated 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. The Middle East is home to an increasing number of people who have had to flee from their towns and villages because of conflict, many unable to ever return to their land.
It's very hard to understand what kind of impact displacement has on an individual unless you have first hand experience of it. Displacement leads to a loss of identity, a loss of dignity and a loss of hope. It's almost like time stands still and you can't find a way to move forward, to make plans for your future, and to live - rather than simply exist.
In the past week I have met countless families and individuals who feel like their lives are on hold and they have no idea what will happen to them from this point onwards. It's having a devastating impact on them and on Lebanese society. People are being forced to live in parks, car parks in shopping centres, construction sites and school buildings that are empty because of the summer holidays.
Oxfam's public health specialist, Obia Nixon, told me that whilst out gathering information on the needs of displaced people, he noted how proud the people are and how reluctant they are to ask for outside help. Holding on to your dignity becomes even more important when you lose everything.
Day by day we are mapping the needs of displaced people through working closely with our Lebanese partner organizations. We have started ordering in water and sanitation equipment, pipes and water tanks and other material to provide clean drinking water for displaced people in Beirut and we hope to push this out to other parts of this shattered country. The tasks ahead are huge and only once a permanent ceasefire is implemented will we be able to understand the true magnitude of this disaster. It's then that we expect desperate people to make their way out of the villages and towns in the worst affected areas seeking assistance.
Yesterday I went to meet the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union, a dedicated and inspiring NGO that works with disabled and non-disabled people across Lebanon. The LPHU is an Oxfam partner organisation providing humanitarian assistance to 11,000 families in Beirut and assisting people with special needs who are now displaced inside Beirut and across Lebanon. Sylvana Lakis explained that the previous civil war created a great deal of injuries leading to an estimated 75,000 suffering from long tem disabilities.
"With the current war we know that large numbers of people will be left with some kind of disability through the injuries that they have sustained or by simply not being able to access medical care in time. In Lebanon there is still a stigma attached to disabled people, we have to work hard so our voices are heard and our needs are met," said Sylvana. "We are working alongside our partner, Oxfam, in Beirut to support people by providing medicine, medical equipment and follow up care. We've been providing milk for children, vitamins and juice. We are working across Lebanon through our network of contacts."
On the way back from our meeting with Sylvana and her colleagues I saw a little boy who put a big smile on my face. He must have been no more than three years old and was out with his mum buying a snack from a local street vendor. He was dressed in a superman outfit complete with a long flowing cape. A mini-sized super hero among the half empty streets of Beirut - you couldn't make it up.
We found the roads in central Beirut rammed with cars, the traffic causing a total shut down of the road system in downtown Beirut. We heard rumours that there had been an Israeli military attack on the southern suburbs of Beirut a short while earlier. The taxi driver threw his hands up in the air indicating his frustration at the labyrinth of traffic ahead of him. He suggested that I make the 15 minute journey to the hotel by foot. I smiled and thanked the taxi driver for his heroic efforts- that's the thing about Beirut, amongst the chaos and madness people show supreme resilience and manage to find a way to muddle through together.
[back to top]
I'm writing this at 2am after temporarily giving up on trying to sleep. My insomnia has kicked in big time and I'm regretting that late night cappuccino. As I write Kofi Annan is on BBC World condemning the events in Qana representing one of the darkest days so far in this brutal and bloody war. The horrific images from Qana are being shown continuously on the Arabic satellite channels, the limp bodies of children being dug out from smashed buildings, close ups of the faces of young children and grief stricken women weeping and wailing.
It's been a very intense day in Beirut - I've been here for less than 48 hours but it feels like I've been here for two weeks.
Earlier around midnight whilst I was trying to force myself to sleep I heard what sounded like an aeroplane after a few minutes I remembered that the airport in Beirut is no longer functioning and then it dawned upon me that it was the sound of Israeli airplanes flying above the skies of Beirut. I wrapped my hijab around my head and stepped on the to the balcony of my room to see what was going on. There are no streetlights in Beirut as they have been switched off to conserve energy, which means it's very difficult to see anything. The sky was jet black and I couldn't see a thing, even though the sounds of the aircraft became louder.
I called Lina, a wonderful Lebanese woman and dedicated aid worker whose organisation is one of Oxfam's partners in the country. I asked Lina if she knew what was going on. Lina told me not to worry and that we were in a safe part of Beirut and that she would call me later with more information. Next I called my colleague Natalie staying in a room a few floors below me. We decided that there was no point in waking up the rest of the Oxfam team and if the planes started dropping bombs in the southern suburbs of the city as they have done in the past I would make my way to Natalie's room. A couple of text messages later Natalie and I decided we should stay in our rooms and get some sleep. I obviously didn't stick to my side of the deal.
Earlier in the evening I went with Lina to Martyrs Square in the centre of Beirut to a candlelight village in memory of all of those who had died hours earlier in Qana. At least 800 people had gathered in the area flying the Lebanese flag, holding banners condemning the violence and demanding justice. Groups of people gathered to place candles under a banner in the colours of the Lebanese flag with the slogan '4 Million Lebanese Hostages' referring to the size of the population of Lebanon and the anger and despair increasing numbers of people are feeling - they feel trapped in their own country with no way of escaping from the ongoing wave of violence and terror. Events in Qana have tipped people over the edge across this exhausted and weary country. Lebanese people are extremely resilient, most of them carry the mental scars of years of civil war many of them also bear the physical scars of the conflict that ripped Lebanon apart.
Everyone that I spoke to today talked about his or her anger and pain at seeing Lebanon being destroyed. Emotions were charged and I could sense the frustration around me. Lina and I decide it was time to leave and meet up with the Oxfam team to plan ahead for the next day.
In a few hours I hope to be able to meet up with Sukina and Lara from NAVTSS, one of Oxfam's partner organisations working with displaced people and refugees in Beirut. I had planned to go out with Sukina and Lara to see the way the organisation is responding to this emergency for myself but then news of Qana started coming in and later of the UN building in the centre of Beirut being attacked by an angry group of people in response to the carnage in Qana. Our team leader Graham decided that it would be best if we returned to our office and wait for our Oxfam colleagues to return to our hotel so we could gather our thoughts about the stressful conditions that we are working in. Two of the Oxfam team had been inside the UN building when it was attacked but were lead to safety the Lebanese police.
I can hear a very loud buzzing sound outside and am wondering if I can be bothered to investigate what the sound is. Okay curiosity has got the better of me; I'm going to take a look outside. I think it's the generator that has seen better days- I also think its time for me to try and get some sleep.
[back to top]
Two or three days after the Israeli aggression on Lebanon started, I met with an expatriate who had been flown in to Lebanon to help out in the evacuation of foreign passport holders. Back then, many of us did not want to believe that this aggression is indeed a full fledged war on the people of Lebanon. Sure this was reminiscent of 1975 when our parents were absolutely convinced that they were witnessing skirmishes which would not last more than a few days. The skirmishes lasted over 15 years and developed into a long and agonising civil war.
Back to my expatriate friend and to the conversation we had on the second or third day of the war. At some point we spoke about a possible cease fire and my interlocutor felt that "this is unlikely at the moment unless something spectacular happens... unless they [the Israelis] go too far". "What does going too far mean in this context mean?" I ask. "Isn't this far enough?". By then, the death toll had exceeded 200 and most of the bridges, roads and the airport had been bombarded. "Well", my friend answers, "we've seen it happen in other parts of the world. One day they will bombard a school or some place full of civilians thus causing a major catastrophe that the world cannot ignore. Only then would a cease fire be possible".
Would this be a scenario similar to what happened back in April 1996 when Israel bombarded civilians who had taken refuge at the UN quarters in the village of Qana? The thought did cross my mind but only very briefly. Indeed, back then Israel had "gone too far". The bloodshed could not be ignored and cease fire was possible as a result.
And so a second massacre in Qana occurred today on the 18th day of the war. The Israeli army air raided the village of Qana and cold-bloodedly bombarded a building occupied by civilians, most of whom were displaced women or children. Whilst many of the victims are still trapped under the rubble, the death toll has risen to 70 individuals half of whom are innocent girls and boys.
One tiny village in South Lebanon is subject to two consecutive carnages over a period of 10 years. The victims in both cases are poor, innocent and unarmed civilians, mostly children. The perpetrators are the same. The international community is, as always, idle and unconcerned even as the horrific photos of this carnage have been shown on TV channels (albeit with due censorship).
Even when faced with this horrific serial killing of innocent and unarmed civilians, I hear Western politicians on the Western media regurgitating arguments about "civilians being used as shields", "Israel's legitimateneed to create a reasonably quiet zone on its Northern border", "the need to uproot terrorism" and very little being said about those who died today and during the past 17 days.
There is no bravery in air-raiding civilians, destroying an entire country, displacing its residents and inciting hatred amongst its people, only a disproportionate and cruel use of force and violence.
On the 18th day of the Israeli war on Lebanon, and after this massacre, I ask myself is this the price of a possible cease fire? Do the lives of these women, children and men not count simply because of their nationality and the fact that they are poor and helpless? Was the international community really expecting this to happen? Was the international community actually waiting to see this happen? Does the international community think
that this is actually enough? How much is "too much"? How far is "too far"?
[back to top]
It's been a very long and tense 24 hours in Beirut with the war in Lebanon intensifying and the anger and hatred in this region growing hour by hour. The Oxfam rapid response team arrived in the Lebanese capital yesterday afternoon after getting security clearance from Oxfam HQ for us to make the six-hour journey over the Syrian border into Lebanon. The roads into Lebanon were unnervingly quiet with very few cars on the road and even fewer people out on the streets. During a normal summer in Lebanon the country would be full of holiday makers escaping to the mountains for the cool air or mingling alongside the foreign tourists on Beirut's beautiful beaches. This summer things are a very long way from being normal. Large parts of Lebanon have been destroyed by the ongoing Israeli attacks on the country especially targeting towns and villages in the south of the country where Hiz'bollah are firing rockets into Israel from. In the past three weeks of attacks over 600 civilians have been killed in Lebanon with today marking one of the ugliest and dark days of the war so far.
I spoke to one of Oxfam's partner's working in Sidon, south Lebanon earlier today who passed on the number of a local man living near Qana where repeated Israeli air strikes have left and estimated 40 people dead, half believed to be children and many more injured. Local resident Hamid Riddah told me that up to 100 displaced civilians were living in the four floor building when it was flattened by a number of Israeli air strikes. Mr Riddah says he helped pull people out of the rubble and counted at least 35 injured people some of whom were taken to Najam Hospital in Tyre. It's impossible for Oxfam to check these facts and to verify Mr Riddah's account of events as due to the lack of security we are unable to travel to the south of the country and see for ourselves the magnitude of need and suffering.
Within minutes of the Arabic news channels broadcasting images from Qana the mood turned very ugly in the centre of Beirut and a group of about 1,000 angry people marched to the UN building and took out their anger and frustration out on the building, pushing inside. At the time of the incident two Oxfam staff members were inside the UN building where a meeting was being held to co-ordinate the water and sanitation needs of the thousands of displaced people inside Lebanon. Along with two Oxfam colleagues I was in a meeting with one of Oxfam's partners at the time events were unfolding. Outside we could hear police car sirens and were unaware of what was happening when Graham, the team leader's phone rang. It was our colleague inside the UN building giving an urgent update on the attack on the UN building. Thankfully everyone inside the building was led away safely by the police and Lebanese military. We expect to see our colleagues in a couple of hours back at base so we can sit down and have a debrief about today's events.
We have been in Beirut for less than 24 hours and even though the centre of Beirut is quite and safe compared to other parts of the country the air is thick with tension and it's very clear that things are going from bad to worse and fast. The taxi driver that drove us back to our hotel was agitated and tense - everywhere you look people are on edge and there has been times today when I have sensed that things are turning very ugly and if I'm honest at times I have felt very unsure about being here.
Beirut has had its heart ripped out. Once known as the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut is now limp and lifeless. I was here around this time last year but the contrast between now and then couldn't be starker. Then the place was buzzing with life, young Lebanese men and women looking beautiful and driving their fancy cars along the beach road pumping a mixture of the latest Arabic pop songs and American hip hop. Now the beachfront is empty and at night the streetlights are switched off to conserve electricity. It's like going from a buzzing Leicester Square in the heart of London to a rural village deep in the English countryside. I decided to pop into one of my favourite coffee houses in Beirut, Café d'Orient, overlooking the sea. I spent many an hour sitting with friends in this magnificent café relaxing over Arabic coffee and catching up on each others news whilst on my travels in Lebanon. The café was totally empty and the lights were switched off, I popped my head through the door and called out to see if anyone was inside. I walked in and found Pierre, the man running the cafe sitting outside watching the waves crashing against the shore and looking depressed. I've travelled to Lebanon and few times and in 2004 along with a group of friends I was lucky enough to travel around large parts of this beautiful country including Qana, Soor, Tyre and Baalbek in the north of the country. I used to visit this cafe and now like Beirut it's soulless and a shadow of it's former self. It's been heart breaking to see the images of carnage in these cities, towns and villages. I have very fond memories of visiting these areas in happier times and going to visit a friend's family in Soor. The family showed my friends and I nothing but kindness and love despite setting eyes upon us for the first time and all because we had come from London to visit them. I've spent the past three weeks wondering about the family I met, what has happened to them and wondering if they are still alive.
[back to top]
Damascus feels like a ghost town. It's Friday, a day of holiday in the Muslim world and the roads are empty. The Oxfam team has been up since early organizing last minute things for our planned journey into Lebanon tomorrow morning. We still have to wait for the final security clearance from Oxfam HQ in Oxford but all of us are geared up to get moving early tomorrow and start our work on the ground. I spoke to some of Oxfam's partners this morning to get the latest update on the situation where they are. Our colleagues sound tired, many have had little sleep over the past twelve days and are working around the clock to assist people in need. The team in Damascus has been planning ways of working with our partners in Lebanon and know that we will be sharing information and working closely together to respond to the humanitarian needs.
Earlier today I went to visit the Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) in the centre of Damascus. I had arranged with some of the Red Crescent volunteers to visit a school housing displaced families from across Lebanon. There are an estimated 150,000 displaced Lebanese civilians in Damascus and the surrounding areas and this is a conservative estimate. I visited Shariyah School in south Damascus to get a better understanding of how people arrived in Damascus and how they are living now.
The school is now home to 164 people of whom 60 are children aged twelve years or under. The building is clean and standards of hygiene appear to be high, each classroom is housing a family and there is a bathroom and shower that is shared between five classrooms. In the corner of most rooms mattresses are piled up along with bags containing food supplied by the SRC. It was clear that this building is one of the better ones and because the school is a boarding school there are more bathrooms and other facilities than what you would expect in a normal school building where many of the displaced are living. I was invited into one of the classrooms where I met Nabi and Izdihar Fouani a couple from Baalbek in the north of Lebanon. They had fled the bombing twelve days ago along with their seven children including one of their sons Ali, 30, who has Downs Syndrome. Izdihar told me the family had lived in a house in Baalbek where her husband had worked as a casual laborer. When the Israeli army started bombing the area the family were frightened and got into their vehicle and drove to the Syrian border. The journey was long and very expensive and they had no time to take anything other than the clothes that they were wearing. Izdihar described how everyone in the car was scared that they might be killed on the road leading to Damascus.
While talking to me Izdihar broke down in tears turning her back on me and pushing her face into a towel to muffle the sound of her crying. I looked to the floor and tried to avoid eye contact with her husband and one of her daughters standing near me. Nabi took over the conversation and explained that the family had no idea if their home was still standing. Until two days ago they had managed to stay in contact with two of their sons who had decided to stay in the area and had been told that the house was okay but yesterday the family heard that there had been heavy bombing in the area. Izdihoor and Nabi said they wanted to return to Lebanon but only when the war was over, they said they wouldn't feel safe if there was a temporary ceasefire, what they want to see now is a long term solution to the current crisis so they can return to Baalbek and rebuild their lives. We met other families and individuals inside the school and everyone had a story to tell about how they were forced to flee the bombs often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
In Beirut Sukaina Salameh called me to describe the despair of displaced people living in school buildings in the Lebanese capital. Sukaina works with NAVTSS (The National Association for Vocational Training and Social Services) an Oxfam partner working with Palestinian refugees and young people. " I am seeing children with skin disorders and suffering from diarrhoea because of the lack of hygiene. People are crammed into buildings and there simply isn't enough space, in some cases up to 800 people are living in a school building".
"I feel that people are on the edge, in the Palestinian camps that we work in people were already in a very bad situation and now things have become so much worse for them. Food supplies are low in many areas and people have less and less to eat especially in the camps. We are resilient people but many people inside Lebanon feel unsafe, they feel they have nowhere to go. We need help from the outside world and we need it now."
[back to top]
The Oxfam rapid response team arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus in the small hours of Wednesday morning. The team consists of seven people including a water and sanitation engineer, a public health and a food security specialist and two logisticians responsible for planning our journey into Lebanon and making sure the team has the equipment we need in order to work effectively. Since we arrived we have been immersed in meeting international aid agencies that are arriving in the country to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and various UN agencies to gather information about the humanitarian situation in Syria and in Lebanon where we are gearing up to respond to the needs of people. The Oxfam team meets up in the evenings where we go over the information that we have gathered during the day and each hour that we are in Damascus we feel like we are one step closer to getting the team into Lebanon.
Already over 1,000 Lebanese civilians are reported to be flowing into Syria every day. I went to meet the Syrian Red Crescent society with my colleagues to gain a better understanding of the situation. We were told that most of the displaced are being housed in schools in Damascus and surrounding areas. The Syrian Red Crescent is providing people with food and water but from talking to the dedicated team of volunteers it's clear that they are feeling overwhelmed with the numbers of people pouring in. Outside in the searing afternoon heat I watched anxious Syrian families and people arriving at the Red Crescent centre trying to make phone calls to family in Lebanon to find out if they are safe and if they plan to try and leave for Syria. This is my first time in Syria but having travelled around the Middle East a lot even I can sense that things are far from normal here. People seem tense and most conversations are dominated by events in neighbouring Lebanon, how long this conflict will go on, and how much worse it will become for civilians. Wherever you go you can't escape the images of this conflict with the 24 hour Arabic news channels pumping out the latest news on casualties, and international meetings where politicians debate the merits and necessity of a ceasefire, and when one should be implemented.
I'm doing my best to contact Oxfam's partner organisations in Lebanon on a regular basis but it takes a long time to get through as the telephone networks are under pressure and when you do get through it's often difficult to hear the other person. So far our colleagues are doing their best to assist people in need and seem to be coping well despite the difficult circumstances. The partners know that we are doing our best to arrive in Beirut as soon as possible so we can start working with them, and like us they are waiting for us to start our journey into Lebanon.
Oxfam's rapid response team is busy preparing for travel to Lebanon, trying to find the safest route into the country so we can assist our partners on the ground and boost their capacity to help people in need. Because of the lack of security there aid agencies are having to limit the amount of aid they can take in, only using smaller 20 tonne trucks rather than larger trucks that could be seen as a target for the Israeli army who say trucks are being used to smuggle weapons in and around Lebanon. We are making calls to our key contacts inside Lebanon so we are up to date with the situation on the ground and are busy drawing up a shopping list of what we need to establish a small office there so we can get work effectively. The past 24 hours have been very hectic and exhausting but all of us remain focused and are keen to get into Lebanon so we can start our work.
[back to top]