Lebanon: The unfolding of a humanitarian crisis

المصدر: 
AWID/WHRNet
An Interview with Lina Abou-Habib, Director of the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A).
Q. We know that Lebanon is under severe attack, and things are changing day to day, but can you describe for us the conditions in Beirut and in the rest of the country?
Lebanon is a country in all-out war. All regions have been affected, and the destruction of the South is almost complete. The estimates of internally displaced people range from 700,000 to 800,000. At least 200,000 people have fled to Syria. The number of dead is more than 800 people, and over 16,000 have been injured, -- mostly women and children. This is because Israel has been systematically targeting shelters where for the most part, women and children are taking refuge. In the latest massacre at Qana, the majority of those killed were children, mainly disabled children. There have actually been very few Hezbollah fighters killed. From the profile of the casualties, you can tell that this is a classic example of a war where civilians are being systematically targeted.

The infrastructural damage is enormous. Israel vowed to set Lebanon back 20 years, and this is exactly what they have achieved after only 23 days of bombing with most of the destruction taking place in the first week. The estimates of the damage are already over 3 billion US dollars. The forts and bridges have been destroyed … the seaport, airport and roads too. The private sector has also come under heavy attack, with many factories wiped out completely. And because the transportation sector, including trucking companies and roads, has been attacked, it has been impossible for aid to get through or for goods to be transported within the country. A country of 4 million people has literally been held hostage with an air, sea and road blockade. The supply of fuel is finishing, the hospitals are over taxed, and there is no or very intermittent electricity. The food shortages are extreme, and there is nothing coming in from the outside. Israel is now starting to attack the suburbs in Beirut, we are in the middle of an all out humanitarian catastrophe.

Q. The International community has largely failed to intervene in the situation. What are your thoughts about their response?

Well, let me be clear: first of all we are talking about the response (or rather lack of response) from the governments of those countries, not the people themselves. It is a great shame the way in which governments have failed to respond, and how they have systematically refused to call for an unconditional cease-fire. The U.S.A. and others should not be calling for a “sustainable” ceasefire. Of course we all want the peace to be “sustained”, but what we are asking for is an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. There is just no excuse for destroying a country and systematically killing civilians. We have the 5th biggest army in the world, which is receiving the largest amount of foreign assistance and funding in the world, expending all its might on civilians. We just don’t see the reason for this. There is no excuse. We should have an immediate ceasefire.

We very naively thought that after the massacre in Qana, the international community would wake up -- but nothing happened. I feel that there is a strong element of racism involved. The lives of some people just don’t count: the poor, the Arabs, the Muslims. There is just no other way to explain the fact that they have failed to do anything.

Q. What do you think are the political reasons behind this attack by Israel, and why was it launched at precisely this moment?

I would rather not go into the political analysis of the situation, but let me say this: the way in which this has taken place has made it abundantly clear that it was in the making for a long time. It was a well-prepared, rehearsed plan that targeted a peaceful country and its civilians.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about the situation in the IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps; I know that your organization CRTD.A has been working in the camps to provide humanitarian assistance. What is the situation like?

As I mentioned, there are about 700,000 IDPs in Lebanon now. About 200,000 of them are in camps, which are mostly in converted schools. Others are camped out in parks, or have taken shelter with relatives, or in empty buildings. Community organizations are also there, and have mobilized all their capacity to do immediate relief work and rehabilitation. There are no words to describe the misery and lack of dignity that people are suffering. As always, the people most affected are poorest. Those are the people who flee the last, when conditions are extreme, who have the fewest options, the least amount of money and least amount of control over their lives.

The situation in Lebanon is not only a physical attack but also an attack on people’s dignity and self-respect. Most have fled with literally the clothes on their back ­ with no change of underwear, no sanitary napkins, no water… The health and sanitation situation for is appalling. It is very hot in Lebanon now, with temperatures ranging around 37-38 degrees making things worse. Skin diseases like scabies are rampant.

In the camps there is a total loss of privacy as well, with no separate toilets for women and no place for washing. The conditions are really sub-human. The camps are mostly populated with women and children. We are at least trying to be vigilant in terms of sexual attacks, although the number of men in the camps is relatively low, but it’s hard because people are living almost on top of each other. We have a lot of experience working with women on civic safety and have formed support groups. We don’t have exact reports of sexual assault and harassment at the moment, but know that these will surface in time.

What is worse is that we are not able to reach those who are not in IDP camps. Many families who are already poor are hosting 4 or 5 other families. But they do not qualify for aid, because they are not in the camps even if they are living in a situation that is even worse. Neither the community organization nor the government has been able to address this problem. It is a major weakness in our efforts.

Q. What has been the response of the Lebanese government to this political and humanitarian crisis?

We have no idea what the governments plans are, either in the short term for immediate relief assistance or in the long term. Apart from a very limited humanitarian response in terms of handing out blankets, the government has been basically absent. The government was already a weak government and the additional weight in terms of the war has been disastrous. There has also been no gendered response from the government, despite the fact that the causalities are overwhelmingly women and children. There is no acknowledgment of this, and no plan for rebuilding.

On the positive end of things, community organizations were able to mobilize almost immediately to provide the necessary humanitarian relief. We are engaged in a lot of collective efforts, and there is a lot of solidarity amongst us. But what is incredibly frustrating is that this not the first time that we have had to respond in this way, and we haven’t had enough time to forget how terrible the last time around was.

Q. How is Hezbollah currently viewed amongst the population?

Hezbollah’s popularity has increased more and more. People are seeing them as a small force that has been able to challenge one the biggest armies in the world, like David and Goliath. The Lebanese government has never been a provider of proper social services like health and education, so community organizations have filled this gap, and excelled at it, and these include Muslim, Christian and Hezbollah organizations, which have gone into action much faster than the government to provide much of the relief.

This attack will cause more and more people to turn to radicalism and extremism. That is what happens when innocent people are stripped of everything, and have great injustices committed against them from what is a much more powerful force.

Q. I know several international groups have issued statements of solidarity, and some have committed funding to relief efforts. What more can NGOs and international solidarity groups do to support you?

The reaction of women’s groups and the show of solidarity has been incredible. For me, it has been a demonstration of global feminism in action, standing up to injustice and providing great support and back-up. Friends and colleagues reacted almost immediately with funds, which allowed us to continue our humanitarian work. The issuing of statements has also been much appreciated. This support demonstrated for us just how far apart women's rights groups and others are from governments, which do not represent the principles of equality, justice and human rights and are in no way representative of their populations.

In fact in many of the statements issued, civil society groups were condemning the position of their own governments. In the Arab region, for example, the reaction of the governments has been very disappointing. They haven’t strongly condemned the attack and have given very little humanitarian assistance. Women’s groups and other civil society groups on the other hand have demonstrated actively in the streets in support of the Lebanese people. This is in spite of the danger they are putting themselves in by doing so, with very repressive governments, like that of Egypt, cracking down on activists. We receive messages daily from women in the region who want to come down and provide any assistance they can, in spite of the fact that we can’t guarantee their safety. They also say how ashamed they are of their own government’s response.

It makes we wonder how long these unrepresentative governments can continue to govern when their concerns are so far removed from those of the people they govern. How much longer can they ignore the principles of justice and human rights before they are stopped?

Q. What are the consequences in the long-term (once conflict has quiet down)?

We will have to cope with both the physical damage and the psychological effects. An economy has been totally shattered. The big question is who is going to take responsibility for this economic and human disaster.

By Shareen Gokal, AWID/WHRnet, August 3, 2006