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Lebanon: women in conflict tell how they survive

14-05-2009 Feature

Between 2006 and 2008, three conflicts devastated parts of Lebanon. As happens everywhere, women suffered most, but they also showed striking resilience in the face of hardship and grief. Four of them speak of how they survived.

 Fatma leads her family to safety  

   
  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-lb-e-01220    
 
  Fatma, a resident of Mhaibib village.    
     

In early August 2006 the war between Israel and Hezbollah reached Mhaibib, a tiny village in South Lebanon just three kilometers from the Is raeli border. Fatma Jaber, 47, was one of the inhabitants.

“The attack took place at night,” she says. “In the morning, we went into hiding in my uncle’s house. We were 50 people or more, but our family of ten was the only one with children, including my sister-in-law’s new-born baby.”

There were wounded and dead in the house as well. After a while, the family had to decide whether to stay – risking death - or leave the village, which was also risky. They decided to leave by foot for the nearby village of Meis el Jebel, carrying bundles of clothes and whatever food they could find.

    

“At around 4 pm the bombing started again, and this time it was very heavy,” remembers Fatma. Then she heard fellow villagers yelling at her, saying that her mother had fallen to the ground.

It wasn’t easy trying to help her mother up: “She is very heavy, more than one hundred kilos! The neighbours were telling me to hurry on because the bombing had become worse. But I could not leave her.” In the end she and her sister walked slowly along with their mother until they reached the village.

There, the family stayed at the mosque for a week, with more than 500 other people. Conditions were not easy: “There was no milk, no medicines. It is a small village, with no pharmacy or supermarket.” A week later the ICRC took the group to a safer place.

When the family returned home on 14 August 2006, the day of the ceasefire, they found the house wrecked, the animals dead, bodies on the streets and the terrible odour of death. But Fatma, the survivor, remained pragmatic: “We quickly cleaned up and settled down again. It is definitely better to sleep in the rubble of one’s own house than on beds in other people’s houses.”

 Hasniyye’s recurring nightmare: the death of her son after prayers  

   
  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-lb-e-01199    
 
  A cemetery in Beddawi Palestinian camp in Tripoli. Hasniyye near her son's grave.    
     

In 2007, a new conflict broke out in the northern city of Tripoli, at the Nahr el Bared Palestinian camp, a settlement of solid and makeshift housing, home to some 40,000 people. For three months heavy fighting took place between the Lebanese army and militiamen of the Fatah al Islam group. By the time the army took control in September 2007, some 400 people had been killed and the camp population had been displaced, with many of their houses reduced to rubble.

Hasniyyeh Yehia Tawiyyeh, 60, lost everything. She is still in the nearby Palestinian camp of Beddawi, hoping to be able to return home one day.

    

“Have you any idea how much you suffer when you have to leave home and your belongings, and get out with just the clothes you’re wearing?” she asks. “No money, no food, nothing. I am already a refugee, born in 1948, the year we lost our country, Palestine. And now I am forced to move again.”

Hasniyye lives on the seventh floor of her building and frequently has to go up and down the stairs. “My husband was sick,” she recalls. “He was in intensive care for seven days and he was not allowed to walk much or climb the stairs. When he came back from hospital, we were trying to get him up to the apartment, but he died right there, on the stairs.”

“All this was like a nightmare. We never dreamed that something of this sort would happen to us,” says Hasniyye. But, she says, those who have returned to Nahr el Bared complain of the mud and rubble everywhere. “Even animals would not live in these conditions,” she sighs.

But the worst was yet to come. Hasniyye’s young son had spent six years in Beirut, and he came to visit his mother in July 2007, trying to help her find somewhere else to live.

“The next day he went to the Friday prayer,” she says, “but he never came back. There was a peaceful demonstration to stop the fighting; there was shooting and two boys were killed, including my son…”

Hasniyye reflects on her fate: “I have been through many, many things. But all the hardship I’ve been through I could put in one hand, and the death of my young boy, I would put it in the other, and it would weigh more. His death is the only thing I care about.”

 Fatmeh and Nouhad: living on the front line of the urban war  

   
  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-lb-e-01163    
 
  Bab el Tebbaneh neighbourhood of Tripoli.    
     

Tripoli again, another summer, another conflict. Between May and August 2008, armed groups in the Bab el Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods fought from house to house until the army re-established a fragile peace. Traditionally, people of different faiths had lived peacefully together, but after political tensions boiled over into violence, tens of thousands of people were made homeless.

Fatmeh Sandi, 41, and her husband Nawras Al Suss, 49, had to flee their small apartment in Bab el Tebbaneh after a shell set it on fire. Their street was the virtual front line in the fighting.

“The first days of the fighting were very hard,” she says. “There was no clean water, no electricity, not enough food. We lived in an underground shelter on candlelight, but that was dangerous too. The floor was covered in water and it was very cold.”

When their apartment took a direct hit the couple sought refuge in Syria (the husband, Nawras, is Syrian, though born in Bab el Tebbaneh.

They have ten children, aged eight to 22; two are at university. Sandi proudly tells how her 19-year-old daughter sat and passed her official exams during the fighting. Now, even if trouble could erupt again, the couple are repairing their apartment, saying they simply have nowhere else to go.

Their neighbour, Nouhad Shaaban, 60, says: “Whenever the shooting began we would go to another room to be more protected; we had to carry my sister, who was sick. It was safe against bullets, but not shells. We used to stay there for a day or two, depending how bad the fighting was. If we wanted to go to the bathroom, we would crawl on the floor to reach it.”

When things got worse, Nouhad’s family would escape to stay with relatives in the country. Because of the sniping, they had to sneak from one building to the other, through holes in the walls.

Nouhad remains distrustful of the future: “We have been through so many wars that we do not expect peace. We know that we must have provisions of food, and that we have to be ready to face the worst.”