Warnings and air strikes in Beirut create havoc for displaced
BEIRUT, Lebanon, August 11 (UNHCR) - Israeli warnings and air strikes in the densely populated southern suburbs of Beirut are creating havoc as people flee to overcrowded areas for safety and aid agencies scramble to help. Meanwhile, more than 145 tonnes of UNHCR emergency relief supplies destined for the displaced in Lebanon have been flown to Beirut and Cyprus.
On Thursday, Israeli planes dropped leaflets on Beirut warning thousands of residents in the southern suburbs of Hay Al Soulom, Bourj Al Barajneh and Chiyah to evacuate immediately. Bourj Al Barajneh is also home to some 16,000 Palestinian refugees in a United Nations-run camp.
"It is really impossible for thousands of civilians to leave their homes in a matter of hours and find safety nearby, particularly when the public centres are already bursting with displaced people," said UNHCR's representative in Lebanon, Stephane Jaquemet.
"For those who have already been displaced once and fled to find safety in Beirut, only to be displaced a second time, is exceptionally tough and frightening," he added.
By the early evening on Thursday, hundreds of people from the southern suburbs had started leaving their homes, many not knowing where to go. The elderly, sick and other vulnerable people could not leave immediately.
Many sought refuge in the Baabda district, east of Beirut, overwhelming local resources. "We got a call last night from the local authorities who were absolutely in despair asking supplies to help out with this sudden influx," Jaquemet said. UNHCR sent blankets, mattresses and kitchen sets Friday morning to try to ease the strain and help out new arrivals.
Some people found shelter in the city's Sanayah gardens, schools and with families elsewhere in Beirut while others sought refuge in the Palestinian refugee camp in Bourj Al Barajneh. The numbers of displaced over the last 24 hours are not known, but some 100,000 people were previously estimated to be displaced in Beirut.
Meanwhile, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Judy Cheng-Hopkins travelled from Damascus to Beirut on Friday as part of her visit to the region to oversee the refugee agency's operations. She will report back on the situation when she returns to Geneva at the weekend.
Yesterday, UNHCR launched an airlift to help rush tonnes of urgently needed relief supplies to Lebanon. Severe damage to roads linking the interior of Lebanon to Syria - where UNHCR has a major supply base - has slowed up aid convoys and made it increasingly difficult to move supplies in bulk.
To boost its response to the growing needs, UNHCR has flown in 116 tonnes of relief items since early Thursday to Cyprus from Denmark and Jordan on three chartered flights. The cargo of tents, blankets, mattresses, cooking stoves, jerry cans, hurricane lanterns, plastic rolls and kitchen sets will be transferred to a United Nations logistics ship bound for Beirut on Sunday.
On Friday, a second UNHCR-chartered Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130 landed in Beirut from Amman carrying 15 tonnes of mattresses. A first flight landed on Thursday with 14.76 tonnes of supplies, including 9,000 blankets from UNHCR's regional stockpile in Jordan.
Sea routes are also being used to bring in supplies in large quantities to help some of the estimated 700,000 displaced people living in schools and with host families in Lebanon. The southern Turkish port of Mersin is expected to be used shortly to send some 8,400 mattresses to Beirut by ship. Loading was underway Thursday night with sailing expected Friday afternoon.
On Friday, a French ship left the southern port of Marseille for Beirut, carrying five Mercedes trucks which will be used by UNHCR to deliver relief supplies in Lebanon. It will also bring in 30,000 blankets, 15,000 jerry cans, 100 plastic rolls and 3,000 kitchen sets.
At the Syria-Lebanon border a seven-truck land convoy loaded with 2,340 mattresses, 3,200 blankets, 1,152 kitchen sets, 15, 336 pieces of soap from the UNHCR warehouse in Damascus is waiting at Al Aarida to cross into Lebanon. It did not have security clearance to travel on Friday.
Meanwhile in Syria, where an estimated 160,000 displaced Lebanese are sheltering, UNHCR is starting to set up tented camps in summer youth camps in Homs, to help ease overcrowding. Distribution of relief supplies - such as pillows, bed linen, underwear and diapers - to host families and Lebanese in need is continuing. Over the last two days 6,544 mattresses have been distributed across the country.
While dealing with the immediate emergency, UNHCR is also planning ahead for a return of displaced Lebanese if there is a successful outcome to the current negotiations on a UN Security Council resolution and hostilities cease.
By Astrid van Genderen Stort in Beirut, Lebanon