In the first of a series of blogs from Beirut, WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge describes the difficulties involved in bringing relief along bomb-damaged roads to citizens in southern Lebanon. This report first appeared on the Guardian Unlimited website.
One of the most frustrating things about being here in Lebanon for the UN World Food Programme is the feeling that there are tens of thousands of displaced people who believe we are doing nothing for them.
When demonstrators forced their way into UN House in Beirut last Sunday and ransacked the building, it was partly because of a need to vent their fury over what is happening in Lebanon, but also, I suspect, because of a perception of the UN as a monolithic bureaucracy that is doing nothing to help.
It’s not much use trying to explain to people that the UN is no more than a sum of its parts – the member states – that the UN represents Lebanon, Syria and Iran every bit as much as it represents the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom and they all have a responsibility to bring peace.
On the ground
Heading south with an aid convoy, it takes very little time to see the images of war.
And while the world’s attention is on the UN politicking in New York, few people take much notice of the work that the UN humanitarian agencies are getting on with on the ground.
In the past week, WFP has sent nine relief convoys to the south of Lebanon, carrying food, shelter materials, medical kits, bottled water and water purification kits, sanitation supplies and kitchen kits. In Lebanon, WFP handles transport of relief supplies for all the UN agencies, as well as a number of non-government organisations.
It’s a complicated business. No convoy moves without first getting consent from all parties involved in the conflict – the Israeli Defence Forces, the Lebanese Government – and through the Lebanese Government, Hizbollah.
It is a lengthy and generally inflexible process. We have to list the exact number of trucks and escort vehicles, our starting point and destination, the route we are taking and the time it is likely to take. And then, if we get held up and are unable to reach our destination, we have to go through the whole process again the following day.
Images of war
Downtown Beirut is a bit subdued at present, but it is still a living city, with couples promenading along the Corniche and shops and restaurants open. But heading south with an aid convoy, it takes very little time to see the images of war.
The southern suburbs, still festooned with posters of Hassan Nasrallah, have been bombed extensively. There are collapsed buildings, burnt-out cars, craters in the road and broken bridges. We are not popular here; youth shout abuse as we pass and old men gesture angrily.
After leaving Beirut, we joined the motorway to the south. With only 80 km to Tyre, my hopes were high that we would get there and to our final destination, Qana, well before sunset – and perhaps even manage to get back to Beirut the same day.
But ten kilometres later, we had to turn off – every bridge on the motorway south to Tyre had been destroyed. We headed into the mountains, along narrow steep roads, between olive groves, lemon orchards and vineyards – and that was when or problems started. Ageing trucks, each laden with up to 15 tons of relief supplies, were struggling to make the hills and within minutes, we were having breakdowns.
Three hours later, when we rejoined the coast, my driver told me that in normal times, we would be 25 minutes’ drive from Beirut. Four hours and several stops later, we were within spitting distance of Tyre and I was still thinking we would get to Qana the same day. I was reckoning without the Litani river.
The bridge had been blown and we had to make a detour along a three-kilometre dirt track, wide enough only for traffic on one directions. We waited for three hours in the middle of a huge banana plantation, watching an endless succession of cars, some with as many as 12 people including children aboard, poured out of the south.
Over the time we were there, I counted more than 2,000 cars. South Lebanon is emptying fast – although there are still tens of thousands of people there who need our help.
As the sun was setting, we finally rolled into Tyre. There was no hope of reaching Qana that day, let alone getting back to Beirut. A night on the concrete floor of the UNIFIL base awaited us, with the rattle of the ancient air conditioner only broken by the dull thud of falling bombs.