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Saving lives and restoring human dignity
09 August 2006
by Marko Kokic and Ayad Al Mounzer

Beirut, Lebanon: A long prayer rings out through loudspeakers across the centre of Beirut. The sombre tone is in keeping with the city's mood. Streets normally packed with people and traffic remain quiet. Many shops are closed. In the few that remain open, televisions bring today's news of another day of fighting, another day of horror.

Images of dead and injured civilians caught in the crossfire and the heroic efforts of Lebanese Red Cross paramedics feature on the news bulletins every day. First on the scene, volunteer paramedics rescue the living and recover the dead. Their work is fraught with peril, with only the Red Cross emblem to protect them.

A recent incident proved just how dangerous their work can be. A rocket tore through the roof of an ambulance transporting the injured. It blew a melon-sized hole through the centre of the Red Cross emblem on top of the ambulance. Paramedics suffered minor wounds but a patient lost his leg in the incident.

Red Cross paramedics transport the seriously injured to Beirut's hospitals. Thousands of civilians have already been wounded. One of them is nine-year old Samah Chihab who is recovering in Beirut Governmental University Hospital. A bomb cut her down as she played in front of her house in the town of Tyre.

The hospital is modern and well equipped but understaffed.

"We have received medical supplies, but no direct medical assistance," explains Assistant General Manager, Bilal Masri, "Right now we are working at thirty percent of our capacity in terms of human resources because staff have been unable to reach the hospital".

Many people have already fled raging battles in the south while others remain trapped. Leaving can be as dangerous as staying. Bombed cars litter the road leading south. Some still contain bodies but the security situation in many areas is still too dangerous for Red Cross volunteers to recover them.

An estimated million civilians have been displaced, many taking shelter in schools and other public buildings. Hassan Mohammed Abadi and his family are camped out in a school on Mount Lebanon near Beirut. They arrived only days ago from their southern village of Yatir where they remained amidst the fighting for almost two weeks. When it became unbearable they took a chance and fled, taking only what they could carry.

"We lost everything, our home, our possessions even our dignity because we now have to depend on the goodwill of others to survive," says Hassan.

Hassan and his family are among the lucky ones. In Beirut, there is no room left in public buildings for internally displaced people. In Sanaya Garden Park, hundreds of displaced people sleep out in the open.

Hassan An-Dahir, his wife Mirvat and their four children fled the heavily bombed Beirut suburb of Dayheh.

"It's still too dangerous to return to Dayheh so I don't know whether my home is still standing," says Hassan. "We don't want to leave Beirut. Some of the schools outside the city are overcrowded and filthy."

"We are better off here for now," adds Mirvat.

But for internally displaced people there is help. Across the country, Lebanese Red Cross volunteers are busy doing all they can. In Beirut the Lebanese Red Cross dispensary is open every day providing free medical consultation and medicines and referring those needing specialized care to hospitals.

In a crowded waiting room, volunteers help the doctor by screening patients and filling out prescriptions. Hundreds of patients are diagnosed daily.

"Most of the cases we are dealing with are people with chronic illnesses but we are also seeing cases of acute respiratory infection and diarrhoea as well as stress related symptoms, especially among children," says Dr Hassan Fayad.

In the northern city of Tripoli, Red Cross volunteers are providing psychological counselling services to internally displaced people traumatized by the fighting. "We find that many children don't speak openly about their feelings so we provide them with activities allowing them to express themselves, for example through drawing or games," explains Lebanese Red Cross volunteer, Sarah Bittar.

"Giving people things such as food, water, shelter and medicine is essential, but it is sometimes not enough. Internally displaced people often tell us that what they really appreciate is just having us around to talk with," adds Zahra, another Red Cross volunteer.

The Lebanese Red Cross is working tirelessly to provide internally displaced people with essentials as well. On Mount Lebanon, Red Cross volunteers are registering the internally displaced to determine their needs. Red Cross volunteers recently distributed to those they registered a truckload of hygiene kits and blankets provided by the ICRC.

Displaced people in Sanaya Park are not forgotten. On the same day, Red Cross volunteers distributed a truckload of blankets, sleeping mats and tarpaulin also provided by the ICRC. Red Cross volunteers joined hands to form a perimeter behind which where stacked the relief items. Local organizations helped to make sure the distribution ran smoothly.

Two small water tankers hired by the Lebanese Red Cross are distributing drinking water to schools sheltering displaced people. ICRC water and sanitation engineers are helping train volunteers to ensure distributed water is safe to drink.

"The water we are providing people in the schools is the same as that which comes out of every the tap in Beirut. It is chlorinated and safe to drink," says ICRC Wathab Engineer, Naji Corban taking a sip of the water to make a final point.

The ICRC has already negotiated the passage of three cargo ships through the naval blockade into Beirut and Tyre in the south. On board were sleeping mats, blankets and tarpaulins as well as enough food for tens of thousands of people. ICRC truck convoys filled with humanitarian aid travel south as often as security permits, and relief items are distributed, whenever possible, in collaboration with the Lebanese Red Cross and its volunteers.

Continued insecurity and badly damaged roads mean the greatest challenge remains getting adequate aid to where it's needed.