Lebanon + 1 more

Lebanon: courage and caution to evacuate civilians from Nahr-el-Bared camp

By Hasna'a Sa'adeh in Tripoli and Saleh Dabbakeh in Amman

Heavy fighting continues in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, near Tripoli in northern Lebanon, between Islamic armed groups and the Lebanese army.

According to local Red Cross and Red Crescent sources, thousands of civilians remain in the camp. Working in close cooperation and round the clock, Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) volunteers are delivering relief to families still inside the camp and evacuating the wounded. This essential coordination has helped thousands of people to leave the camp safely.

Roger Pavitos, director of the Tripoli branch of the Lebanese Red Cross ambulance service, thought he had gotten used to seeing corpses and the suffering of injured people during his more than 10 years as a volunteer in the Lebanese Red Cross. Yet, Roger could not explain why he became so emotional facing this child in particular.

The four-year-old boy was not injured or sick, but he was in shock after three days of heavy shelling and fighting in the Nahr-el-Bared Palestinian camp.

Clinging to his father who wanted him evacuated with a number of other children, he would not let go of him or allow anyone else to carry him. For safety reasons, the father, who was leaving the camp in a convoy of civilian vehicles, was handing his son over to the Lebanese Red Cross for the dangerous five-kilometre trip to the nearby Baddawi Palestinian refugee camp, to pick him up there, on arrival.

Roger was finally able to take the child. He could feel how shocked he was as he held him tight in his arms. All he could think of were his own two children, one of them the same age as the child. He held the boy as if he was his own son. Exhausted, the child gave in to Roger's expression of love and they both left for Baddawi. The Lebanese Red Cross ambulance reached Baddawi safely, where the child was re-united with his father at the compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has been providing relief to millions of Palestinian refugees in several Middle East countries, including Lebanon, for decades.

"In coordination with the Palestine Red Crescent, we were able to evacuate 450 persons, mostly children and elderly people to Tripoli and Baddawi camp that day," explained Roger. "No time for rest under fire when you are trying to save lives."

A wide smile appears on his face when asked if he is afraid, working under such dangerous and strenuous conditions. "Danger makes us more cautious. We plan our steps more carefully," he says. "We have to stay alive as we have our own families to think about. But, we also have to protect the lives of those we are trying to save. We have to be bold but also careful in order to evacuate people to safety."

Coordination between the Palestine Red Crescent Society, working inside the camp, and the Lebanese Red Cross outside is vital. There are many stories of people who were saved thanks to this collaboration.

One day, as LRC volunteers were receiving several injured persons from the PRCS, who were to be evacuated to Baddawi, a resident of Nahr-el-Bared collapsed near the ambulance. Although healthy, fit and in her 30s, Fatima Ghoneim could no longer walk due to fear and shock.

She was now begging reluctant volunteers to take her along. They hesitated; they were there to evacuate the injured. How could they justify bringing healthy people out? But scenes of the July/August 2006 hostilities in Lebanon, and cries of help from traumatized people, were still fresh in their minds.

Sympathizing with Fatima's plight, a volunteer opened the back door of the ambulance. Soon, more than 20 people had crowded into the vehicle. They were all brought to the safety of Al-Minyeh, a nearby Lebanese town whose residents were paying back their Palestinian brothers and sisters in kind. They still remembered how Nahr-el-Bared had offered them shelter, food and other necessities during the conflict in July. They were now displaying the same kind of solidarity.

Some 3,000 Palestinians have been accommodated by Al-Minyeh residents. According to the PRCS and the LRC there is a lack of sufficient shelter, water, food, and electricity in the Baddawi camp since the influx of people displaced by the fighting in Nahr-el-Bared.

Roger took some time to talk to evacuees and was comforted to hear their gratitude towards both the Palestine Red Crescent and the Lebanese Red Cross. "We are praying for you all the time," said Fatima. "We know that you put your lives in danger to save others. We all appreciate that." Other expressions of solidarity between Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers were numerous inside and outside the camp.

On his way out, Omar Khalil, a Palestinian from Nahr-el-Bared who heads a family of 13 people explained how he could not find enough words to thank both National Societies. "Palestine Red Crescent volunteers had to break down the wall of our home to get us out from the rubble," he said. "Two of my children were lost during the mayhem. The Lebanese Red Cross was able to evacuate all of us, including my disabled son, find the two who were lost and bring them back to me. It was only in the evacuation ambulance that I was able to see little smiles on my children's faces."

More than 50 LRC volunteers have been active in the evacuation and relief operation at Nahr-el-Bared. Inside, the Palestine Red Crescent had to change the location of its clinic as it was dangerously close to the firing line.

The response of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to the plight of civilians was quick and well coordinated. The PRCS was able to send food items, medical teams and paramedics dispatched by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Lebanese Red Cross into Nahr-el-Bared, Baddawi and Al-Minyeh to provide as much relief assistance as possible to the needy.

The PRCS has the responsibility of evacuating the wounded and the sick, handling the delivery of medicines and food items to residents of both camps and initiating psychological support activities in Baddawi for more than 150 refugee children.

According to Ayad el-Mounzer, the Information Officer of the LRC, his organization has been transferring patients to Safad and other hospitals. "The Lebanese Red Cross is still on full alert to provide assistance when needed."

Since the outbreak of the fighting, the ICRC, the Palestine Red Crescent and the Lebanese Red Cross have provided the refugees in Nahr el-Bared with more than 40 tonnes of food and bread, some 121,000 litres of drinking water, 800 hygiene kits and 44,000 candles. Aid has also been delivered to those who fled to the nearby camp of Baddawi and to other Palestinian camps in Saida, Tyre and in the Bekaa region.