Day Two: The UN, the Displaced and the Lebanese Activists
By Medea Benjamin
We broke up to do different tasks today. I started the day by visiting the new UN headquarters. Ever since the Lebanese people had trashed the UN building to protest the UN’s refusal to call for a ceasefire, the UN agencies moved to a hotel on the beach called Movenpik. It’s strange finding the World Health Organization and the World Food Program holed up in a fancy hotel with beach cabanas and tennis courts trying to figure out how to get aid to bombed out villages in the south without getting killed. A UN security advisor told us that all UN agencies and NGOs that want to take aid to the south first contact the Israelis for permission, and that if permission is denied, they don’t go for fear they’d be shot.
With good reason. Just yesterday, a car driving beside the UN convoy had been shot, its two passengers killed. “We have to tell the Israelis when we’re going, where we’re going, what we’re taking, and the exact size of the convoy,” the UN security advisor explained. The fact that the Israelis targeted the one extra car alongside the convoy seemed like a clear message that it is the Israelis, not the UN, in control. And lately, they’ve been denying the UN agencies the right to go, leaving the southern part of the country in a state of crisis.
One group that does not want to let the Israelis control the agenda is the Lebanese civil society groups who are setting up a convoy to the south on Saturday. We attended a meeting in the afternoon with about 25 people representing a wide range of organizations and individuals. They are hoping to get 100 cars to come on the convoy, but with the increasing shortages of gasoline, they may have to scale back. Most of the groups represented were not doing anything even remotely related just one month ago. Some, like Green Line, are environmental groups; some, like the Arab Women’s Cultural Center, are artists and intellectuals; others, like the International Solidarity Movement, have been trying to protect the rights of Palestinians on the West Bank, but came to Lebanon after the fighting broke out here. What unites them is their outrage at the destruction of their country, their determination to do something to help those under attack, and their refusal to ask permission from the Israelis to help their own people. We have been planning to join the convoy as well, but with the new Israeli offensive, it’s not clear if the road will even be passable.
In the afternoon we stopped at Saneyah Park, a place where about 1,000 displaced people are located. They are sleeping out in the open, without even tents. In fact, some people had offered to get them tents, but the people are afraid that if they set up tents, the Israelis will think they are a military base and bomb them.
Many people at the camp are quite traumatized, having lived through weeks of bombing, seen their loved ones killed and their homes destroyed. Many are from the southern towns that barely exist anymore. Others are from the Shia parts of Beirut that have been bombed. In fact, while we were there chatting, a huge blast made us jump in the air and the children start screaming. We later learned that 41 people were killed when that bomb struck an apartment building just a few kilometers away.
We talked to widows trying to survive with 4 or 5 young children; disabled people trying to get medical treatment or a wheelchair so they could get around; older people who were disoriented and in shock. The most resilient, of course, were the children, running around making games out of sticks and stones they found in the park. When we started taking their photos, they jumped all over us, asking us to take their pictures.
We fell in love with the children, and decided we wanted to do something special for them. The volunteers running the camp were providing the families with a basic hot meal every day, but little else. We asked the volunteers what the children would like, and they in turn asked the children. “Would you like chocolate, or cookies or ice cream?,” they asked. At the word ice cream, their eyes lit up.
Back in the US, when we were doing our 30-day fast in front of the White House against the war in Iraq, every Friday night we’d feed ice cream to the homeless. Now this Friday, we’ll be providing ice cream for about 500 Lebanese children displaced by the war. Ice cream for those suffering and dispossessed seems to have become a theme for our efforts, especially during these hot, summer months. I can’t wait until we figure out the logistics for ice cream giveaway, so we can see the happy faces of these children who have suffered so much.
The people here feel helpless to stop the fighting, and they feel the world community has abandoned them. They are particularly angry at the United States, who they feel is providing Israel with the weapons and the international cover to keep up the attacks. One US aid group, when they entered a village that had been attacked, was chased away by angry local people who refused their donations. In fact, some UN people advised us to say we were Canadian or European, not American.
People are also angry at the Arab leaders who have been so slow to demand a ceasefire coupled with Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. While the UN is stuck in what seems like endless deliberations, every day they delay in setting up a ceasefire, more and more people are killed, wounded and displaced. Just today, an additional 200 people streamed into this camp after their homes were attacked. And this is just one of dozens of camps here in Beirut. Tomorrow, there will be more…