As focus shifts to Lebanese returnees, UNHCR remembers thousands still displaced
BEIRUT, Lebanon, August 24 (UNHCR) - While most Lebanese have rushed back to their homes, thousands remain displaced around the country for reasons ranging from fear about the future of a precarious ceasefire to the complete destruction of their houses.
Even as the UN refugee agency is carrying out daily distributions of assistance - tents, blankets, plastic sheets and other items - to those who are now back in their battered villages, UNHCR teams are continuing to visit displaced Lebanese who have not been able to return home.
"There are many reasons why those people have stayed where they are," said Vida Hamd, a UNHCR field officer. "A number of them come from villages that have been severely damaged, but others also prefer to wait and see how the political situation will unfold."
The government estimates some 90 percent of the displaced - nearly a million people by the end of the war - returned in the first days after fighting stopped. UNHCR staff in Syria, from where more than 150,000 Lebanese have returned, believe only around 2,000 displaced Lebanese remain there. In areas around Beirut, public shelters like schools are mainly empty.
However, many who made the trip back to their villages discovered their homes were either destroyed or were no longer habitable. They remained in the area, displaced in a new location. UNHCR estimates a large number of those who tried to go home might now be staying with friends or relatives, but it is impossible to know exactly.
Others are nervous about the durability of the ceasefire, with Israeli soldiers remaining in the south of Lebanon awaiting the deployment of a UN peace-keeping force. The composition of that force is still under discussion.
"Getting accurate numbers on the remaining displaced has been difficult," said Hanan Hamdan, team leader for the Alley/Chouf UNHCR team, which is working in areas where huge numbers of displaced had been concentrated. "Although the local authorities are trying to do their best to know how many have stayed behind, there is a lot of movement and numbers were changing continuously," he added.
"Although my house is fine, we decided to stay here," Nada Saleem of Baalbek told a UNHCR monitoring team that visited her outside Beirut this week. "Let us see what Kofi Annan's visit will bring." The UN Secretary-General is expected in the region in the next few days.
UNHCR teams in the south, where the rural damage was greatest, are able to assist both the displaced and those who were able to move back to their homes. Several UNHCR teams were in the field on Thursday distributing emergency aid such as tents, blankets and plastic sheets in badly damaged villages of southern Lebanon. Emergency repair kits for rebuilding are also being prepared.
In Syria, UNHCR staff will make a detailed study of the remaining Lebanese displaced, starting this weekend. In areas near Beirut - where the greatest number of displaced initially fled - UNHCR teams are monitoring the needs of those who have remained and those who have hosted them. There are 5,000 displaced known to have remained in the Chouf hills just outside Beirut.
Systematic monitoring of the areas in which the internally displaced people (IDPs) were initially present has also confirmed the burden their presence placed on local residents and UNHCR is looking into redirecting some activities to support the population that has hosted the displaced.
"Since the overwhelming majority of IDPs in this area have been housed by normal families in their houses, one does not realize the burden that the host families had to carry; and the pressure on the municipality," said the mayor of Alley. "This area depended on tourism and farming. The war has been a setback to both sources of income."
As in neighbouring Syria, both the state and individuals stepped in to immediately provide shelter for those fleeing the war. UNHCR assisted the displaced with the provision of emergency items such as mattresses.
"When the war started, three families came knocking at my door. That was around 20 people. I did not know them, as they were from Qana," said Altaf, one on the many Lebanese who threw their doors open. "I told them that they could stay for free, seeing how difficult their situation was. We just had to manage somehow. It was difficult days."
By Reem Alsalem in Beirut, Lebanon