Lebanese returns from Syria pass the halfway mark at 98,000
DAMASCUS, Syria, August 17 (UNHCR) - The number of displaced Lebanese who have returned from Syria this week passed the 90,000 mark on Thursday as more UNHCR emergency assistance arrived in Lebanon by air, ship and road
The total recorded leaving Syria - plus thousands more who are believed to have returned on unofficial mountain routes - meant well over half of the 180,000 Lebanese who were believed to have sheltered in Syria have gone back home since a ceasefire came into force on Monday morning.
By five in the afternoon, an estimated 18,400 Lebanese had passed through Syrian checkpoints. That brought the total number of returnees from Syria since Monday morning to 98,400, or more than half of the total number of Lebanese who fled to the neighbouring country during the month-long conflict.
UNHCR staff expected that figure to pass 110,000 by midnight, while Syrian officials believe more than 10,000 people have returned via unofficial border points. Collective centres in major cities were almost empty.
The UN refuge agency continued to organise bus transport back from Syria as many people who had fled the Israeli bombing in Lebanon did not have enough money to return. During the day, five buses left from the Syrian city of Homs for Baalbek, Tripoli and the Lebanese capital Beirut, while seven buses left from Damascus for Beirut and a further two for Baalbek.
At the Yaboos border point, the main crossing on the Damascus-Beirut road, UNHCR operated a bus shuttle to take people without transportation through the four kilometres of no-man's land. Taxis waited on the Lebanese side.
In Beirut, a C-130 chartered from the Royal Jordanian Air Force arrived from Amman with 200 canvas tents. A second C-130 - from Belgium's air force - was due to land later on Thursday with 2,000 plastic sheets and a "Rubbhall" - one of the huge tents that will be erected in the southern city of Tyre to warehouse emergency supplies for distribution in the neighbouring region.
Belgium has offered 12 flights into Beirut to ferry the emergency supplies UNHCR needs to assist returnees. The Portuguese air force has also offered two flights to carry in UNHCR supplies.
In the afternoon, the French ship Cap Camarat from Marseille arrived off Beirut with 60,000 kg of supplies for UNHCR, including 3,000 kitchen sets, 15,000 jerry cans, 100 plastic rolls, 30,000 blankets and five trucks.
A 12-truck UNHCR convoy loaded with 2,900 tents sent from UNHCR stocks in Syria was expected to arrive in Beirut, while another convoy loaded with tents was to leave Damascus on Thursday.
UNHCR teams maintained a 24-hour presence at the four border points from Syria, where they hand out return packages containing bottled water, high energy biscuits, wet towels, rehydration salts, bread and canned meat. They also identify vulnerable cases needing other assistance and warn returnees of the danger of unexploded ordnance scattered over the region.
"The people are very excited to go. They certainly know about the difficult situation in Lebanon, but all we see here are happy faces," said UNHCR protection officer, Lisa Quarshie, at the Al Aarida border crossing.
"Lately we see people with lots of boxes going back, filled with food and bedsheets and other donations from the Gulf states," she added.
At major points on the roads inside Lebanon, UNHCR staff were monitoring the returns and providing assistance. UNHCR also was pre-positioning supplies in southern Lebanon for distribution as the extent of the needs in isolated areas becomes clearer.
Meanwhile, in the south of Lebanon a UNHCR team has arrived in the city of Tyre, which suffered severe damage and was cut off at one stage during the conflict. A United Nations joint assessment mission visited Bint Jbail, a focal point of the recent fighting, in two armoured vehicles on Thursday.
The UNHCR team in Tyre are the advance guard of the staff who will establish warehouse facilities and establish exactly what assistance will be needed by those trying to rebuild in the worst-affected areas.
"There's severe destruction caused by aerial bombardments," said UNHCR's senior liaison officer Harry Leefe. "Where there was once a house, I could just see a bomb crater. There are also lots of cluster bombs," he added.
UNHCR intends to focus initially on emergency shelter for the most vulnerable but will later assist rebuilding of homes and community structures such as schools that can provide shelter for the homeless as they rebuild.
A member of the UNHCR team in Tyre said the roads heading south were becoming slightly less congested as people reached their home areas. She said UN mine clearance teams had reported large numbers of cluster bombs scattered in southern villages such as Tibnin, where they found 200 of the deadly devices. Unexploded missiles and bombs are also a danger to returning families and have started claiming victims.
By Annette Rehrl in Damascus. Syria
and Astrid van Genderen Stort in Tyre, Lebanon