Refugees in Lebanon

Fear Travels with Them

The cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel has launched a wave of refugees returning to their homes, but the problem of the displacement of many Lebanese still remains unresolved. By Anne Françoise Weber

On the first day of the cease-fire in Lebanon long lines of cars formed heading south and many residents have returned to the badly damaged southern suburbs of Beirut – yet for scores of refugees the future still remains uncertain.

According to UN estimates, more than 900,000 people have been displaced as a result of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Giving exact numbers is not easy, admits Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Nayla Moawad, since approximately two-thirds of the refugees have found shelter with relatives or acquaintances, in churches and mosques, or even in abandoned houses.

Schools as refugee shelters

Others have found accommodation in over 800 schools scattered throughout the country – their numbers alone amount to around 145,000. Every school in Beirut has opened its doors for refugees from southern Lebanon or from the southern suburbs. Even the Palestinian camps around Saida, whose inhabitants live in great poverty, are offering refugees shelter in their schools.

But although most of them still have a roof over their heads, it is difficult to provide them with the supplies they need: in particular, the water consumption of what often adds up to several hundred people living in a school building generally exceeds the capacity of the facility.

In many cases political parties and groups have unofficially taken over the administration of a school. They either take care of providing food, bedding, hygiene articles, and clothes for the refugees alone or together with the help of nongovernmental organizations and spontaneously organized humanitarian groups.

The Lebanese government has set up a government committee, the "Higher Relief Commission" (HRC), to organize relief efforts and the distribution of donations. Nongovernmental organizations, however, have criticized the work of the commission, regarding it as too cumbersome.

But Gaby Kattini of the HRC dismisses such criticism. It is the task of the Ministry of Social Affairs under Nayla Moawad to coordinate the work of the NGOs – starting with the formulation of a standardized questionnaire to assess the situation and the needs of the refugees. This questionnaire, however, was completed just a few days ago.

Political instrumentalization

Another problem the commission has had to struggle with is the efforts of political parties and organizations to hand out the deliveries of relief supplies from the Lebanese state as their own donations to refugees. To do so, they even exchange the labels on the packages – thus the state appears more inactive than it is in reality.

In addition, goods from relief supplies frequently disappear and reappear in normal retail stores. "But we're not allowed to set up our own committee to investigate this," explains Kattini in a tone of resignation.

How many refugees will be able to return to their homes and apartments when the fighting is over is difficult to estimate – perhaps less than half.

Apartments, houses, and whole villages have been destroyed by the air raids and battles, and even if a house is still intact, it will be a long time before many areas will be in a position to secure supplies of electricity, water, and food. Moreover, the destruction of factories, fields, and the infrastructure has eliminated countless local jobs.

The "Higher Relief Commission" is now working on a plan to provide shelter for the remaining refugees elsewhere when the new school year starts in September. "Camps are not a solution," says Gaby Kattini, "because we Lebanese have a psychological problem with them. It reminds us too much of the situation the Palestinians are in."

He hopes that when the situation in southern Lebanon has finally calmed down, permanent housing could be built near the areas where the refugees came from.

Sympathy-bearer Hezbollah

Critics, however, doubt that the state can provide the returning refugees with sufficient aid and believe that the aid organizations of Hezbollah that already exist in southern Lebanon and in the southern suburbs of Beirut will undertake most of the reconstruction work and thus win over many more sympathizers.

For most of the displaced Shiite Muslims Hezbollah is their only representation. They consider the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers that triggered the war to be completely justified. Often the Lebanese government is criticized for the lack of adequate supplies. Criticism of the "Party of God", by contrast, is seldom heard among the refugees.

Those who do not wish to declare the victory of Hezbollah and do not want to wish General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah God’s protection, say at the most that they don’t want to talk about politics and merely want to return home in peace.

Anne Françoise Weber

© 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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