Beirut blog: a tale of two cities

Daytime Beirut has a deceptive air of normality. But look a little more closely and the signs are there, writes WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge in the second installment of his Beirut blog -- first published on The Guardian Unlimited website.

In the second installment of his blog from Beirut, WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge describes how thousands of homeless Lebanese are sheltering in the capital's parks and schools. This report first appeared on the Guardian Unlimited website.

Daytime Beirut has a deceptive air of normality. The traffic is busy in the city centre, despite the fuel shortages; pavements are bustling and crowds gather towards the evening on the Corniche to promenade along the seafront, chatting with friends. Ice cream and coffee stalls do a lively trade.

It’s hard to imagine that there is a war on. As one Lebanese told me, “Whatever they do, they are not going to stop us from living.”

Scale of destruction

When I was in Tyre and Qana last week, I was horrified by the sight of so much devastation. The deserted, bombed-out villages reminded me of Bosnia 13 years ago – another senseless war

But look a little more closely and the signs are there: the hundreds of cars queuing up at petrol stations and the parks and schools crammed with tens of thousands of displaced, frightened and angry people.

And if you venture into the southern suburbs, where Beirut’s Shi’a population is concentrated, the scale of destruction is appalling and the atmosphere tense and hostile.

Transformed

Soon after the sun sets, however, Beirut is transformed. The air throbs with the whine of Israeli drones and from time to time the city is rocked by explosions.

There is no set time for the bombardments – sometimes they begin at two or three in the morning, but last night an Israeli warship shelled an area just south of the city only just after dusk.

One building collapsed completely; at least 15 people were killed and many more injured. In the morning, rescue workers were still digging through the rubble in a frantic search for survivors.

Senseless war

In the south of the country, the bombardment is relentless, as the Israeli Defence Forces and Hizbollah continue their tit-for-tat exchanges. When I was in Tyre and Qana last week, I was horrified by the sight of so much devastation. The deserted, bombed-out villages reminded me of Bosnia 13 years ago – another senseless war.

Civilians have fled or are in hiding. One’s first impression is that there is no one left to receive relief supplies. But the municipal authorities in Qana assured me that there were still tens of thousands of people scattered around the villages who needed our assistance.

Poorest

Moreover, these were mainly the poorest and most vulnerable, people who could not afford the taxi fares or fuel to get out of the south – and therefore in the greatest need of help.

Right now, the World Food Programme, which is responsible for transporting all relief supplies for the UN agencies, is unable to reach them.

Cut off

In the first days of the war, the IDF bombed the main highway from Beirut to Tyre, including the bridge across the Litani river, making the route impassable. But by using detours and secondary roads, we could still get our supplies through.

One of the biggest hold-ups was along a narrow dirt track, crossing the Litani river some distance inland. Now the IDF have bombed that crossing too, as they seek to block resupply of arms for Hizbollah and for the time being, Tyre is cut off from the rest of the country.

Running out

I talked to people in the city this morning, and they told me that food and fresh water supplies were fast running out.

Over the next 24 hours, we will try to identify an alternative route, which will inevitably involve even longer detours for our trucks. Failing that, we will try to get clearance to move aid supplies by sea from Sidon to Tyre. It is vital that we restore a corridor to Tyre.

Hard haul

At the same time, we are providing aid – food, shelter materials, drugs and other medical supplies, water and water purification kits – to thousands of people in Beirut and to the east of the country, where many people have fled.

At the start of this operation, we aimed to provide food to 300,000 people. So far we have only reached about one-third of them – and the numbers are certain to go up. It’s going to be a long, hard haul.