Bittersweet Beirut: resilience shines through at WFP food distribution

Lebanese in Beirut's southern suburbs show humour and resilience as they face rebuilding their lives and homes. David Orr attended a WFP food distribution and saw how people are coping.

Lebanese in Beirut's southern suburbs show humour and resilience as they face rebuilding their lives and homes. David Orr attended a WFP food distribution and saw how people are coping.

“Sugar, there’s no sugar, where’s my sugar?” the woman screamed.

I don’t know how we’ll live now, we lost everything

Fadia Termos, school teacher

She seemed pretty angry but there was a hint of a smile she couldn’t quite hide. Everyone around her was laughing and she was determined to put on a good performance.

“Next time make sure I get some sugar as well,” she concluded, wagging her finger at me.

Most of the people who had come to the distribution of WFP rations actually seemed pleased with what they’d received: a gallon of cooking oil, lentils, canned veg, bread and high-energy biscuits.

After the bombing

The bread – huge discs of unleavened Lebanese ‘khibez’ – had been baked earlier at a Beirut bakery with flour provided by WFP.

We were in Haret Hreik, one of the areas of south Beirut worst-hit by Israeli bombing raids during the recent conflict.

Thousands of families in this largely Shia Muslim suburb had fled as huge bombs rained down on their neighbourhoods, turning 10-floor apartment blocks into smouldering piles of rubble.

Now, two and a half weeks after the end of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon’s Hizbollah militia, people are returning to south Beirut and other affected areas to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Home destroyed

They are people like Heyam Safa, an elderly woman whom I met at the distribution in a side street deep inside Haret Hreik.

“My flat was completely destroyed,” she said as she sat on a wall, clutching her bag of rations.

“I lost everything, even my medicine which I need because I’m sick. Now I sleep in the home of a different neighbour every night.”

Resilience

Given all they’ve been through, there’s a resilience and good humour among these people that’s impressive.

The first time I visited the suburb, I was taken on a tour of the devastation by Ali, a local businessman and elected municipal official.

After eight years in Boston, buying and selling Levi’s, Ali speaks excellent English.

He took me to see his drive-in car wash – or what’s left of his car wash: twisted metal sheeting and smashed machinery.

Good humour

Anxious to express the appropriate level of concern, I asked after his family and said I hoped he had lost no one.

At which point, a man hailed us in the street and came towards us.

“Bloody hell, I was hoping I’d lost this bastard”, Ali shouted in mock horror, clapping the man on the back. “This is my damn useless cousin.”

When not overseeing the clean-up of his wrecked business, Ali is helping organise food distributions and other municipal enterprises.

He seems to be in constant motion, talking to four people at once: to his left, a woman who wants her ration package now – “Now, do you hear? I can’t come back tomorrow” – and, to his right, three irate Palestinian residents who don’t have the necessary documents to qualify for rations.

The back street where the distribution is going on is a haven of peace compared to the main thoroughfare which is jammed with slowly moving cars and dump trucks full of rubble.

Targets

Some areas are intact but, in others, dozens of buildings seem to have been targeted.

Bulldozers and power drills are hard at work among huge mounds of broken concrete.

Poking from between the slabs are bits of broken furniture, smashed washing machines and other household items.

Amidst all the dust and noise, people can be seen picking through the debris, trying to salvage a few personal belongings.

“I don’t know how we’ll live now, we lost everything,” says school teacher, Fadia Termos.

Everything gone

“I found my university certificate, a few books, even some of the children’s toys but our clothes and everything else is gone. But it could have been worse. We were in the building two hours before the bomb was dropped. No one was hurt – Hamdullah (Thanks be to God).”

Back in the side street, at the former perfume shop where the distribution is taking place, the last packages are being handed out. More food will be distributed tomorrow.

The authorities of the four municipalities in south Beirut reckon they’ll be giving WFP rations to more than 100,000 people during coming weeks.

“We’ve got a tough time ahead,” says Ali. “But we’re also tough. We’ll make it.”