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Lebanon Fighting Drives Humanitarian Crisis


The United Nations says the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas is creating a humanitarian disaster in Lebanon. More than 600,000 people there have been displaced. Schools and parks are filled with Lebanese trying to flee the Israeli bombing.

Aid agencies say they are also concerned about getting help to those people who cannot evacuate from the dangerous areas. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Beirut.


Many Lebanese who had seen fierce fighting with Israel in 1976 and 1982 recognized the early warning signs in this conflict and began leaving their homes. Now hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are on the move, finding shelter and food wherever they can.

Towns and cities are trying to absorb the huge influx of new people arriving every day. Yesterday, U.N.'s chief humanitarian officer, Jan Egeland, toured Beirut, including the city's southern suburbs, which have come under heavy bombing. Whole blocks of buildings have been leveled.

Egeland derided Hezbollah for indiscriminate shelling into northern Israel, but he said Israel's response is disproportionate.

Mr. JAN EGELAND (Chief Humanitarian Officer, United Nations): I see here a massive onslaught, really. It's residential houses, schools have been hit, hospitals have been hit, roads, bridges, everything that a society needs to survive as a society. This has to stop.

NORTHAM: More than 350 Lebanese have been killed so far, more than 1,500 wounded. Egeland says it's civilians who are taking the brunt of the fighting. He talked about a family of seven he encountered at a local hospital in Beirut. The father, a taxi driver, lost both his legs. The mother and her five school-aged children were all severely injured.

At the Beirut government hospital in the capital, a nurse describes injuries to eight children she's caring for who were wounded in South Lebanon.

Unidentified Woman (Nurse): (Through translator) They have severe burns. One baby had her eye gouged out. Her stomach was split open and a lot of broken bones. Some of the babies have fingers cut off from the shrapnel.

NORTHAM: Aid agencies are concerned about those people who cannot evacuate from the dangerous areas because they're disabled or elderly or simply can't afford the exorbitant prices being charged by taxis.

There's fear that many people are caught under piles of rubble and that health centers in parts of the Bakah Valley in South Lebanon are running out of fuel to refrigerate medicine and keep machines running.

A ten-day blockade by Israel prevented supplies from getting to Lebanon. Now the Israeli government is allowing medicine, food and other supplies to land in Tripoli in the north, Beirut, and Tyre in the south.

Yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had a large shipment arrive in Beirut by sea. Isham Hissan(ph), the local ICRC Spokesman, gives a rundown of what arrived.

Mr. ISHAM HISSAN (Local Spokesman, International Committee of the Red Cross, Lebanon): I'd say 30 tons of foodstuffs, 400 dialysis equipment, hygiene kits again, water filters, about 400 water filters, and 40 generators that we will distribute to health centers and to hospitals.

NORTHAM: It's one thing to have supplies arrive in the main cities. It's another thing getting the aid to those who need it. The Israeli government will not guarantee safe passage for aid convoys going into the dangerous areas.

U.N. Humanitarian Chief Egeland says this is unacceptable.

Mr. EGELAND: The Israelis have now declared that they will indeed allow us to bring humanitarian consignments by sea and by air to Beirut. This is good news. But if we cannot get it to the people, it's no use.

NORTHAM: Despite the lack of safe passage guarantees, two Red Cross convoys carrying supplies left Beirut this morning, headed for Tyre and Marjayoun, deep in South Lebanon.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.