UNHCR reaches out to worried families in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon, October 4 (UNHCR) - Local and international attention has focused on rebuilding southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut since the end of Israel's military incursion, but this area in the north was also badly hit during the summer conflict.
Israeli air strikes caused substantial damage to houses, farmland, industrial plants and infrastructure, while thousands of traumatised and scared civilians fled from the Bekaa Valley to neighbouring Syria. They started flooding back across the border right after the August 14 ceasefire was announced, but many returned to scenes of devastation in their home areas.
"We are poor. In our villages we never had much. But now nothing is left," said one Lebanese woman, who had fled to Syria from her village near the main Bekaa Valley city of Baalbek. She and others in the fertile valley fear they will be forgotten as reconstruction efforts concentrate on the south of the country and damaged suburbs in the capital, Beirut.
"People visited us over the past weeks, some NGOs [non-governmental organisations] came. They made assessments and left," Khaled, the local relief coordinator in the town of Ali El Nahri, told a visiting UNHCR team. "We don't know when, or if, we will get some assistance," he added.
"All aid is going to the south now," Khaled claimed. "They have more damage than we have, but people here also do suffer." A quick tour of the town, located south of Baalbek, is enough to take in the destruction: some 90 buildings were damaged, 15 heavily, and nine people were killed out of a population of 20,000. The water distribution system was also badly damaged and the precious liquid spills into the streets.
But help is on the way to an area that is considered deprived compared to some other parts of the country such as Beirut and the popular coastal resorts that suffered heavy material and financial losses during the five-week conflict. Many locals have scarce income resources and so are heavily dependent on outside aid.
UNHCR is working with a local NGO, the Sawa Group Association, to help people in the Bekaa Valley still displaced because their homes were destroyed or are too badly damaged for habitation. Sawa provided UNHCR with a list of needy families in the countryside and Baalbek.
The refugee agency has been providing items such as blankets, mattresses, tents, kitchen sets and hygiene items. This assistance has helped more than 200 families in Baalbek and more than 40 in the nearby town of Britel, while UNHCR is also helping families in villages and seeking out other vulnerable people in the countryside.
"Over the coming weeks we want to reach out increasingly to the Bekaa Valley, since most of the agencies and NGOs do concentrate their efforts on the south and villages in the Bekaa risk being forgotten", said UNHCR community services officer, Lisbeth Jensen.
The aid is much appreciated. Officials in Baalbek said UNHCR was one of the few organisations to come to the city and deliver on promises to help.
The agency is putting a priority on helping the most vulnerable families. UNHCR is also facilitating contacts between municipalities and other UN agencies and NGOs, who are in a position to provide assistance in the areas of food, education and water and sanitation.
After showing the UNHCR team around Ali El Nahri, Khaled was in a much more upbeat mood. "Maybe now people are starting to think about us in the Bekaa again," he said.
By Annette Rehrl in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon