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Middle East: Humanitarian Crisis Grips Lebanon

Displaced persons in Beirut on July 24 (epa) PRAGUE, July 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly 400 people have died in Israel's attacks on Lebanon, most of them civilians. The United Nations says more than half a million people have been internally displaced. The UN has urged the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to safely transport aid from Syria to civilians in the worst hit areas of Lebanon. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan spoke with Beirut-based Hicham Hassan, the Lebanon spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

RFE/RL: How would you describe the humanitarian situation in Lebanon after 14 days of conflict?

Hicham Hassan: For us, we consider it as extremely preoccupying on the humanitarian level. If you want a brief description about the situation: the south of Lebanon is almost completely isolated from the rest of Lebanon, [and] the villages inside south Lebanon are isolated from each other. Now, we know that there are thousands of people who are still left inside the south. No estimation of the numbers for the time being. However, they are lacking food, water, medical care. They have lots of children who have special needs.

We have heard reports from some villages that are not having bread for the past five or six days, so it is very difficult. At the same time you have many internally displaced persons who have been moving from the south and from other areas in the southern suburbs of Beirut to the capital city, Beirut, and to other areas like the north and the mountains. And the problem is they are mostly staying in public places like pools, parks, etc. And they are also in need of food, water, medical care, habitat, cover, etc. So it is kind of difficult for the time being, and we are still really preoccupied about the situation.

RFE/RL: So it’s unclear how many people are still trapped in the south?

"If you want to have a picture about the general life in Beirut, let’s say, I can tell you that people are stressed, they are afraid. They are waiting for something, but they don’t know what it is. "

Hassan: [It's not clear] for the time being. We don’t have any estimation. The problem is nobody was able to count already the people who left the south of Lebanon. The UN agencies are talking about more than 500,000 internally displaced persons, but there’s no account from where they came. We know that mostly they came form the south. But we don’t have that kind of estimation.

RFE/RL: On July 24, UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres pleaded for Israel to allow humanitarian aid corridors for the transport of UN aid from Syria. How is your organization managing to distribute aid and assistance?

Hassan: I don’t know about the humanitarian corridor via Syria. But I know that we are getting our convoys via the northern border with Syria already, for six or seven days now. Yesterday, we received another one; two days before that we received another one; and today we are probably going to receive another convoy. So we are not having any problems getting our convoys through the northern border with Syria. But it’s taking a long, long time. And, well, there is a much urgent need.

RFE/RL: I understand some of your ambulances have actually been hit by Israeli attacks in the south. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Lebanese civilians crossing the border into Syria on July 17 (epa)

Hassan: There have been two ambulances of the Lebanese Red Cross, which we support financially and technically. Two of the ambulances yesterday were meeting at the midpoint between two villages to hand over [patients]. One of them was handing over injured and wounded to another ambulance. At the midpoint, they were handing over the injured and apparently they were hit, [by a] direct hit on the ambulances. Some of the Lebanese volunteers were injured and the ambulances were heavily damaged. We, as the International Committee of the Red Cross, contacted the Israeli authorities to ask for the green light to go and evacuate the wounded, and we had that green light. We sent another Red Cross ambulance to evacuate the wounded from the spot.

RFE/RL: In the Tyre district in the south, there are apparently more than 100,000 people there who are at risk of running out of food and water. What is the ICRC doing there, if anything?

Hassan: We do have some people there. And today, actually, another convoy is going there. Already, two convoys sent by the ICRC have arrived there; and today, a third is going there this morning, and it’s carrying foodstuffs. We are doing our best to get all the foodstuffs necessary, but it’s by far not sufficient for the time being.

RFE/RL: Would you say the people who are internally displaced, from south Beirut and southern Lebanon, are seeking to flee the country or simply the areas hardest hit in the Israeli offensive?

Hassan: Usually, most of the people are just fleeing to other areas of Lebanon. This has happened before in many periods in Lebanon: in 2006, in ’94, in ’82, and ’75. And people usually flee to other areas in Lebanon. However, many people also did decide to leave the country, either they are preparing for that or they have already left. But we don’t have any specifics about that.

RFE/RL: And what’s the situation like, generally speaking, in Beirut. Can you give us a picture? We have seen television images that show the southern Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut to be absolutely destroyed. What’s life like in the city at large, the rest of the city?

Hassan: The images you are speaking about are the images we have seen here as well in Lebanon. It’s exactly in the southern suburbs of Beirut. People have fled also and evacuated either to Beirut capital city or to other areas of Lebanon. If you want to have a picture about the general life in Beirut, let’s say, I can tell you that people are stressed, they are afraid. They are waiting for something, but they don’t know what it is, I guess. Beirut used to be a very lively city. Now, most of the shops are closed. The only shops that are open are basically food: restaurants and snack houses, etc. It’s quite difficult and I can repeat again that people are stressed.

RFE/RL: What’s the main message, then, that you are seeking to convey to the international community?

Hassan: The message we have conveyed already many times, and we are repeating, is that the parties of the conflict, specially, we are urging them to conduct their military operations in respect to international humanitarian law in order to lessen the human suffering, and spare the lives of civilians. And we have repeated many times the urgency to let the Lebanese Red Cross and other organizations working in emergency evacuations to be able to work safely, because for the time being, they are the only organizations that are able to reach many areas in the south. They are risking their lives. They are doing a tremendous job in an excellent way. But they need a relatively safe environment to be able to continue their task.