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The horrors of war and volunteering (Day 3)
13 October 2006
by Mark Snelling

In Mount Lebanon district near Beirut, a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer talks to a displaced woman in order to collect data. Many of the displaced are staying in schools and receiving assistance from the Red Cross. (IFRC)In Mount Lebanon district near Beirut, a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer talks to a displaced woman in order to collect data. Many of the displaced are staying in schools and receiving assistance from the Red Cross. (IFRC)
"It was a horror film with no end," says Hicham Diab, a logistics officer with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Based in Beirut, Hicham also worked as a Lebanese Red Cross ambulance volunteer.

"During the emergency, we didn't talk that much about the war. Now that it has ended we have got on with life and we are ready to do it all again," he says. But beyond the tales of courage and bravery, Hicham is certain that he and many other volunteers have paid a heavy price for the work they did.

"I've reached a situation where I feel that I have no emotions, that's the first time that this has happened." Volunteers as young as 19, he says, now form part of a new generation of Lebanon's youth who have not just heard stories of the horrors of war; they have experienced it for themselves.

"The people we carried were suffering from all kinds of injuries, but most of them were first degree burns. I'd say about 20 percent of them died on the way to hospital." His sense of numbness - a text-book symptom of post-traumatic stress - mingles with anger. "Now there is a whole new generation that has lived through war and it will take 50 years before there is another that hasn't."

Like so many of his compatriots, Hicham feels that the conduct of the war has left many questions, but no answers. "You can ask 'why war'?" he says. "But most importantly, why civilians?"

Driving through the southern suburbs of Beirut, which saw some of the heaviest bombing, I truly struggle to imagine the kind of hell on earth that was unleashed here. Tightly packed tower blocks give way to the gaping expanses where whole city blocks were atomised. Dust, ashes and the assorted detritus of man-made destruction are all that remain.

Tens of thousands fled the most heavily bombed areas, seeking sanctuary with relatives, either outside the city or in safer neighbourhoods. At the Lebanese Red Cross Emergency Medical Services centre in the southern suburb of Mreijeh, I meet Fatima Hussein. She and her family stayed in their apartment, which is in the same building as the centre, calculating correctly that they would be safe there.

Some 4,000 families in the area, including Fatima's, received rice, sugar, oil, kitchen equipment, blankets and hygiene products. On top of that, ambulance crews filled their vehicles with food after they had dropped patients at the hospital and brought it back.

"We were like a family with the Red Cross," says the 17-year-old. "Without them we would have found it very difficult." Another neighbour, Howayda Abu-Abbas, described the Lebanese Red Cross presence using an Arabic idiom, "hajar ala hajar", which translates literally as "a stone on a stone". It's what happens when you bridge a gap, she explains.