Lebanon + 1 more

Lebanon: The call of humanitarian duty

By Ayad El Mounzer, Lebanese Red Cross, and Hassnaa Saadeh

Youssef, perplexed, didn't know what to do. Should he tell them to go home and take some rest? Or should he rather keep them on alert, as clashes continued in Nahr el-Bared refugee camp?

Youssef Boutros, head of the Lebanese Red Cross Emergency Medical Service (EMS) teams in the Northern District, was reluctant to be unfair to the young men and women who looked exhausted and whose bodies longed for sleep after weeks of very long days and very short nights. He did not want to take the decision himself, so he left the matter to them. "Those who want to leave can, those who want to stay are welcome to," he said.

They all opted for the second choice. The call of duty was stronger than fatigue.

Youssef Boutros is proud of the first aid workers and their constant preparedness. He says his team is very realistic about their work, sometimes in the line of fire, and what they do, they do with love, dedication and sacrifice. He considers them his first family, and his real family comes second. "I have held the Red Cross in high regard for all my life. When I married, I told my wife that volunteering was my life."

He feels for the paramedics and their families. Some of the first aid workers have not gone home or to university since clashes began. Youssef sometimes asks female first aid volunteers to leave and take some rest with their family. But they refuse and are just as enthusiastic as their male colleagues, even more so, he notes.

Youssef volunteered with the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) in 1989, first at the Koura centre in Northern Lebanon. He was then successively promoted until he reached his present post as head of the EMS teams in the Northern District. He sometimes gets angry but attributes this to mental more than physical fatigue, especially under current circumstances.

There are six new first aid posts near the entrance of the Nahr el-Bared camp, staffed by more than 50 first aid workers, and equipped with 15 ambulances and several small vehicles. Work takes place under a lot of pressure. All Northern centres are mobilized to help, with about 90 first aid workers - including Youssef and his team - and 15 other ambulances, coordinated in an operation room.

"I regret nothing and expect nothing in return," he says. "I feel satisfied after 19 years of work at the Red Cross. My work is humanitarian; I feel joy and happiness at every step I take, helping the wounded, transporting the sick or providing first aid."

Youssef praises the "great job" and total cooperation of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) first aid workers with their colleagues in the LRC, who are just as enthusiastic and prepared. "This makes our work much easier," he says, noting in addition the importance of a "wise, courageous and round the clock leadership" for the successful management of this large emergency team.

"I sometimes felt fear, but not panic. Fear is necessary in order to preserve your life and do your work carefully. Panic, however, paralyses you and makes you go home."

Many scenes have affected him. He cannot forget, for example, the face of that elderly, handicapped man whom he helped. He saw him as his father; he ran to him and carried him with no hesitation, motivated by a love and caring feeling he had never experienced before when carrying a wounded or sick person. Youssef has never discriminated between theneedy. He cares for everyone. This elderly gentleman, however, with his teary eyes, made him sad as he raised his voice, praying that all wars come to an end and that peace prevail.

For 19 years he never cried, says Youssef, because a first aid worker must control his emotions. However, he wept with bitterness for his two fallen comrades from the Lebanese Red Cross, Boulos Meemary and Haitham Sleiman, who were recently killed near Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. He cried for them, companions "full of compassion, love and humanity, whose only fault was that they believed in humanity. From saving victims, they became victims themselves."

But Youssef remains hopeful. He calls upon everyone capable of contributing time and effort to volunteer with the LRC. He argues that those who did not serve with this humanitarian organization will not know the value of human beings and the value of their presence on this earth. Youssef believes that "the human being is a message to be read through his acts."

Nahr el-Bared - field report from the Lebanese Red Cross (20 May to 26 June)

Despite announcements that military operations in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared had ended, fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam continues. The ongoing violence is hampering relief and evacuation operations carried out by the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) inside the camp, working with the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC), in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

An intermittent lull allowed more than 5,000 families (around 22,000 persons) to flee Nahr el-Bared, but, according to unconfirmed reports, several hundred families may still be inside Nahr el-Bared camp. They face very difficult living conditions, with no power or water, no means of livelihood, and shortages of medical items and food.

Because of the fighting it is becoming harder and harder to bring supplies into the camp and evacuate the wounded and civilians. The most recent delivery of aid to Nahr el-Bared camp, 760 kilos of food, took place on 20 June.

From 20 May to 26 June, in cooperation with the PRCS, and in coordination with the ICRC and the Lebanese army, Lebanese Red Cross emergency medical teams transported 450 wounded people, 59 corpses, 320 sick people and 1016 civilians fleeing the camp.

Aid is also being provided to displaced families in the Palestinian camp of Beddawi. Over that period, some 70 tonnes of food were provided. LRC volunteers are also documenting the number of displaced persons in Beddawi camp and evaluating their needs.

Since 13 June, LRC youth volunteers have been managing two displacement centres at Beddawi camp set up in two public schools, containing 87 families (nearly 500 people). Working in cooperation with PRCS volunteers they are distributing food parcels and humanitarian aid, and have set up welfare, cultural and health information activities for children, youth and women, as well as psychological support programmes.