Monday, July 31, 2006

Just the facts, ma'am

I'm sitting in Damascus after two days of assessing the Lebanese refugee situation here. But first, some facts from our assessment report we wrote today:

  • Currently, there are over 700,000 displaced people within the borders of Lebanon.
  • 1/3 of the 600+ dead are children.
  • Humanitarian access has been very difficult due to waning supplies (including fuel), bombed roads, and continued violations of humanitarian corridors.
  • About 125,000 are living in schools, parks and other public areas in Beirut that do not offer adequate shelter or hygiene and are short on emergency supplies.
  • Because of the destruction of roads and bridges in the south of Lebanon, most humanitarian agencies have been unable to access the tens of thousands of people living in the South and most have been unable to flee out of the area.
  • The UN has stated that it is virtually impossible to get much needed food and medical supplies into many of the isolated villages in the South.

Still, we plan our visit into Lebanon tomorrow, hoping that the Israeli promise to stop bombing for 48 hours to investigate the horrific killings in Qana holds true. It's still a pretty slim chance that they will bomb the south but the UN is not taking any chances, asking its people to wear helmets and flak jackets and halting humanitarian convoys. Frankly, it's probably more to protect them against the growing anti-UN sentiment rather than anything else.

In Damascus, the situation is a lot better. It's calm here and there are about 5,000 to 10,000 people crossing every day from Lebanon to Syria. Right now, it is difficult to get accurate numbers but there appear to be about 160,000 Lebanese in Syria. Only about 20,000 of them are not staying with host families. The Government of Syria is doing a good job, in general, and has been generous in addressing the needs of the Lebanese who have arrived in Syria. The Syrian community has really taken charge of the relief effort and have been hosting many Lebanese. The Syrian Red Crescent has been providing services and giving out food, water, medical attention and information to people at the border crossing between Lebanon and Syria and also in the many informal shelters around the city. However, with school starting in about a month, many of the schools have to be cleared out and the government of Syria has begun to move people to other areas. The border crossing on the main route from Beirut to Damascus was bombed by Israel on Monday, which makes transiting for the Lebanese into Syria much more difficult. Vehicles cannot pass the crater in the road so they have to get out and walk around it and then find a taxi on the other side. The taxis are charging these people over $100 a person which is quite steep here.

Today, we drove to theborder crossing point with Lebanon to interview the people there. It took about 45 minutes on a nice smooth highway. It's hard for me toremember that all these countries in the Middle East are small! I'm used to giant Congo, Sudan, etc. where driving from one country to another takes weeks. Anyway, we found 300+ Palestinians who had fled Lebanon living in a grocery store there. They have been denied entry into Syria (probably because the government of Syria doesn't want all the Palestinians living in Lebanon to flee here) and they can't returnto Lebanon because their houses have been bombed to smithereens. They've been living there about 13 days.

On the plus side, the Italian restaurant in the bordercrossing is providing them three meals a day and they are in pretty good shape - the children were flying kites and the parents sat around in the shade talking. However, they are basically stateless, like Tom Hanks' character in that movie the Terminal - condemned to live in this no man's land until someone changes their mind and allows them in somewhere. While they are being taken care of by the Syrian Red Crescent, they are presently not allowed to enter Syria, although many were admitted in at the beginning of the crisis. The United Nations agencies squabble over who is supposed to talk to the government of Syria on behalf of these people.

At another crossing point in the North of Syria, the situation is the same for Palestinians from Irak, who are fleeing both generalized violence and targeted persecution. There were also an estimated 20,000 Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon. Many sought refuge in Syria and were granted 48 hour transit visas. After that time, they face possible deportation back to Irak. So far, however, Syria is calm. We saw a small anti-UN demonstration that postponed our meeting at the UN building at lunchtime but it was over soon. We had a scary event where our clueless driver stopped in front of the US Embassy to ask for directions and we got a gun shoved in our direction, but in general, the Syrians are warm and welcoming - even when they hear I am an American.

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