Travelling the road to ruin in Lebanon - Part one

Following the recent conflict in Lebanon, WFP convoys loaded with tons of food and other relief supplies have left Beirut and Tyre daily to help hundreds of thousands of people struggling to rebuild their lives in the south of the country. WFP spokesperson Peter Smerdon joined one such convoy on 26 August.

Following the recent conflict in Lebanon, WFP convoys loaded with tons of food and other relief supplies have left Beirut and Tyre daily to help hundreds of thousands of people struggling to rebuild their lives in the south of the country. WFP spokesperson Peter Smerdon joined one such convoy on 26 August.

For 12 Lebanese truck drivers and their WFP-contracted vehicles loaded with food, water and health kits, the road to ruin began with the arrival of two armoured WFP Landcruisers and forty-one-year-old Jan Persson Cooper and his team at Beirut port just after dawn.

“Welcome,” said Persson Cooper, who works for WFP partner Swedish Rescue Services Agency, which provides convoy leaders for WFP’s logistics operation in Lebanon.

“Keep looking in your rear mirrors,” he said, “and if you don’t see the truck behind or it’s too far away, slow down and then we’ll all slow down and we can tighten the convoy together.”

A long haul

Protected by heavy armour and thick, bullet-proof windows, the two Landcruisers are the convoy escorts – one at the front and one at the back to keep the trucks on track and out of any trouble.

Their Lebanese drivers and Persson Cooper keep in contact by both radio and mobile phone. Every 30 minutes the convoy leader reports back to UN Security in Beirut, giving their current location to narrow down any search.

From what I see on roads, they were very accurate. For instance, gas stations. When you see three gas pumps in a row, they had hit the middle one

Jan Persson Cooper, Swedish Rescue Services Agency

Today the first destination for Persson Cooper and his team is WFP’s logistics office in the southern port of Tyre, where six trucks and their cargoes of water for UNICEF and health kits for the World Health Organization will be delivered.

Then they go east into the hills to take WFP food to the village of Tibnine and the town of Bint Jbeil which was heavily damaged by shelling in Israel's attempt to cut off Hizbollah's supply route.

Tyre is 75 kilometres south of Beirut as the crow flies. Following Israel’s month-long bombardment of Lebanon by land, sea and air, it feels a lot longer on the ground and, with 12 large trucks, it's a long haul despite almost two weeks of road repair to patch up the worst damage.

WFP’s first convoy to Tyre was on 26 July. Since then, over 70 convoys have carried more than 3,300 tons of WFP food and 1,300 tons of other humanitarian aid from other agencies and non-governmental organisations across the country but mainly to the south.

Maximum damage

Driving south of Beirut it becomes quickly obvious that the leading road targets of the Israeli air force were either bridges over the main highway or the highway itself when it passed over a road tunnel.

The reason was apparently to maximise damage and stop movement because one road collapsing on top of another destroyed two routes at once.

There are many more destroyed or damaged overpasses than those that remain intact.

Copyright: 2006 WFP/Peter Smerdon

A fire engine smashed up on Bint Jbeil's streets following heavy fighting

Sometimes overpasses have collapsed flat onto the motorway, and the debris remains so a diversion has to be made to slow, narrow coastal side roads – difficult with 16 loaded trucks in heavy traffic.

In other places, a single bomb has punched through the concrete road, leaving a large hole encircled by snapped and twisted steel reinforcement bars.

Several diversions off the motorway later, the convoy reaches the Litani River.

Cars take one route over a single-lane new military bridge while trucks turn off for a long drive through a quarry.

Hizbollah

The further south we go, posters of Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nassrallah appear in earnest – pasted on the back windows of cars and on roadside poles.

As they grow in number so do yellow flags with the Hizbollah emblem and banners with slogans hitting out at its enemies.

In the ancient seaside town of Tyre, 75 kilometres south of Beirut and two and three-quarter hours after leaving the capital, six of the trucks carrying 60 tons of UNICEF water and 169 health kits for the World Health Organization at the WFP office make a stop.

Tyre was hit during the Hizbollah-Israel conflict, but workers have filled most craters in the roads.

Most shops are open and there are even some traffic jams this Saturday morning.

Now the real work with the six remaining trucks carrying WFP food begins as they head towards the rocky hills winding west through small villages.

Travelling the road to ruin in Lebanon - Part two