Michael La Civita
The refugee camp at Dbayeh, founded in the early 1950s north of Beirut--once housed thousands of Palestinian refugees, most of whom lived in Christian villages in Galilee. This week, the camp has become home to a new influx of refugees from the south: 58 Lebanese families, most of them Shiite Muslims. "We have just distributed a weeks supply of aid," said Issam Bishara, who heads Catholic Near East Welfare Associations Beirut office. "The Little Sisters of Nazareth have opened the second floor of the school--which we renovated after the civil war for the sisters work with mothers and children--and are helping to make the displaced as comfortable as possible, spending time with families who have nothing and have nothing to return to."

Providing emergency aid to displaced families is not new to Cnewa’s Beirut staff, most of whom joined the agency during the climax of the civil war in the late 1980s. "But to be honest," Mr. Bishara continued, "we never thought we would be doing it again.

"Our programs to revitalize villages have helped facilitate the return of families displaced during the civil war," he said from his office on the 16th day of the war. "Our program was advancing confessional reconciliation and returning our country to the life it once knew."

Sadly, the summer of 2006 is changing much of that.

The Staggering Costs of War

The shelling of Lebanon, particularly the intensive bombardment of neighborhoods in southern Beirut and both urban and rural communities in the south, has displaced some 800,000 people so far--20 percent of Lebanons population of 3.9 million people. Precision missiles, bombs and rockets have killed more than 500 people, most of them civilians. Hundreds are missing and presumed dead, and thousands are injured.

Already saddled with a public debt estimated at U.S. $40 billion, Lebanons economy is now shattered by the destruction of airports and seaports, highways, bridges and roads, electrical transformers and generators, fuel tanks and stations and communications networks.

"Factories that produced yogurt, cheese and medical supplies have also been destroyed," Mr. Bishara reported. "The country is under a complete siege. Trucks laden with supplies from the Muslim world are at the Syrian border--no truck, even if it is carrying emergency relief supplies, is safe from rockets. "Earlier today our gasoline supplier told us we can fill up our office vehicles one last time; hell be out of petrol by the end of the weekend."

Food supplies are also dwindling. "We distributed emergency aid parcels for 500 families today and have received an additional 1,000 packages. But inventories are depleting quickly," said Mr. Bishara. Earlier in the week, the Lebanese imposed price controls to discourage price gouging.

Refugees, Both Christian and Muslim

In North America, Cnewa has launched a Lebanese Relief Fund. In addition, Cnewa has received initial emergency grants from a number of European Catholic funding partners, totaling 170,000 euros ($217,225). These funds will ensure supplies for 2,500 families (about 12,500 persons) for two weeks.

Cnewa has selected three areas with a significant concentration of displaced families to receive emergency aid: Jbeil (ancient Byblos), Kesserwan and Metn. These Christian areas, all located in Mount Lebanon near Beirut, have welcomed 4,664 families (an estimated 23,330 people) to 52 displacement centers, which include public and private schools. Aid packages, valued at $48 each, include a weeks supply of canned food (beans, cheese, corned beef, fish, oil and sugar), powdered milk for children, detergents and soap, toiletries and disposable plates.

"Displaced families, most of them Shiite, are seeking shelter in Christian areas of the country," Mr. Bishara reported. "These areas are considered relatively safe, although targets in Ashrafieh, which is 100 percent Christian, and Jbeil have been bombed."

So far, displacement centers in these regions have been well organized, he said, with center coordinators resolving problems, tending to family needs and working as liaisons with Cnewa staff members.

But Mr. Bishara expressed deep concern about the tremendous strain this war will place on everyone in Lebanon. "Even if this war ends tomorrow--which I doubt--where will the displaced families go? Their neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble. Cholera and dysentery will break out shortly if bodies are not retrieved and buried.

"And kiss the academic year goodbye, if schools are not available for class by September. What will we do with our children?"

Nevertheless, Cnewas Beirut staff is planning a course of action for long-term aid, which includes providing additional water reservoirs for schools that serve as short-term housing, erecting makeshift kitchens and installing portable showers. "Things are worse in the southern part of the country," Mr. Bishara concluded quietly. "We can’t get to the Christian and Muslim families who are trapped there, folks who are afraid to flee even on foot, families who no longer have bread and are drinking pond water once used for their crops."

Michael La Civita is assistant secretary for communications of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and executive editor of ONE magazine.