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July 21, 2006

Lebanese Refugees Crowd Damascus


by Dahr Jamail

DAMASCUS - Syrian capital Damascus is being flooded with refugees. The devastation in Beirut is beginning to show in another capital.

The disaster response director at the Damascus headquarters of the Red Crescent, Raed al-Tollin, told IPS that while he does not have exact figures, their shelter has been deluged with refugees since the crisis began.

"The citizens of Syria are helping with water, food, and beds," he said. "Already we are lodging refugees in schools, cathedrals, college dormitories, and anywhere else we can find for them."

One of the biggest difficulties at the moment is lack of baby food, Tollin said. "So far we are managing to cope with this crisis, but we don't know how much more to expect. Eventually, at this rate, we could run out of everything.."

Tollin said he and his 150 volunteers would continue to do all they can to help the refugees "until we are out of everything or have completely exhausted ourselves."

A 22-year-old volunteer at the headquarters, Ramez al-Rowaz, said the center is running out of beds and supplies for the growing number of refugees.

The United Nations has said that at least 900,000 Lebanese have been displaced by the Israeli bombing. Lebanon has a population of 3.8 million.

"We are trying to prepare ourselves for a long crisis," Rowaz told IPS while handing a loaf of bread to a family that had just arrived from southern Lebanon. "Now there are orphanages and schools taking people, but the problem is how long can they stay at the schools, especially when classes begin again."

Rowaz said she had to assist more than 100 people Wednesday to find lodging. Some of the first people to have arrived were fleeing tourists, but now it is mostly Lebanese families.

"The journey to the border, which used to take two to three hours, is now taking 10-12 hours," Rowaz said. "We have aid stations at the borders that are doing everything they can to help these suffering people."

Hassan Hamdan, a 60-year-old man who left southern Lebanon Wednesday, described a scene of total devastation.

"The Israelis are bombing everything; buildings, civilian homes, the water, electricity, all is destroyed now," he told IPS. "Even the Red Cross there was bombed by these murderers. Then they bombed near the UN building, near my destroyed home."

Article 48 from the 1949 Geneva Conventions states the need to protect the civilian population: "In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."

Israeli bombing of the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. That makes Israeli actions a war crime.

Hamdan said the Israeli attacks were not killing any of the Hezbollah resistance fighters, but were focused on the civilian infrastructure.

"They shredded our city," he said. "They thought this would turn us against Hezbollah, but now everyone is with Hezbollah. How could they be otherwise?"

Diala Hayda, another volunteer for the Red Crescent at the headquarters building in Damascus, told IPS that many of the refugees she is assisting were so desperate to leave that they left everything behind.

"So many are arriving here with only the clothes they wear and whatever money they had in their wallet," she said, "so of course they are desperate and angry."

Countless refugees are headed for shelters all over Damascus. At a center set up by the Syrian Personal Relations Association, a non-governmental organization, refugee Walid al-Hammad described scenes of utter destruction caused by Israeli bombings.

"They have cut the roads to pieces and are bombing everywhere," he told IPS. "We left yesterday, with our six kids and our neighbors – we ran for our lives. Nothing is left of where we lived. Our city is demolished, yet they aren't killing any resistance fighters."

Affaf, a 21-year-old mother holding her one-month-old baby, fled Baalbek city in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

"Baalbek is destroyed, and they cut our water and electricity," she said. "They are bombing only civilians, so now most Lebanese are with Hezbollah."

Since the Israeli attacks on Lebanon began, more than 330 Lebanese, the vast majority of them civilians, have been killed. The death toll in Israel is 25, 13 of them civilians.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Dahr Jamail writes about the effects of the US occupation on the people of Iraq, since the mainstream media in the US has in large part, he believes, failed to do so.

    Dahr has spent a total of 5 months in occupied Iraq, and plans on returning in October to continue reporting on the occupation. One of only a few independent reporters in Iraq, Dahr will be using the DahrJamailIraq.com website and mailing list to disseminate his dispatches and will continue as special correspondent for Flashpoints Radio.

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