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Lebanon: 'What struck me was the extraordinary solidarity among the people'

26-09-2006 Interview

Yves Etienne, who is in charge of the ICRC's Assistance Division, has returned from Lebanon, where he coordinated the organization's work for victims of the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel. Despite the extensive damage, he says that the country is resilient enough to get back on its feet very quickly.

© ICRC / B. Schaeffer / lb-e-00515 
An ICRC water and habitat team assesses damage in the ruins of a southern Lebanese town. 
© ICRC / T. Voeten / lb-e-00504 
This family lost their home in the bombings that devastated the village of Bent Jbeil, and refuge in the basement of some friends. 
© ICRC / B. Schaeffer / lb-e-00515 
Pumping station in Saddiqine, southern Lebanon. Getting this station up and running again will bring water back to a region that spans 150 km between Saddiqine and Tyre. 

 What type of aid is the ICRC providing to meet the needs of the population?  

Wherever possible, the ICRC has tried to adopt an integrated approach regarding water, health and food; right up until the ceasefire, we concentrated our efforts on those who had been displaced. Around a million people were forced to flee the south of the country to seek refuge with their families or in public buildings or other public places; some even crossed into Syria. We made sure that we also addressed the needs of those who were accommodating and looking after the displaced people. To this end, we used trucks to distribute water, food and other essentials to numerous communities with the help of the Lebanese Red Cross.

The almost immediate return of the vast majority of the displaced people to their homes after 14 August took us slightly by surprise and forced the ICRC to revise its strategy in the south. Today, we are focusing primarily on people who have returned to their houses, as well as on those who have set up home next to their destroyed buildings. We are carrying out regular distributions of family parcels containing food and such essential items as cooking sets and blankets.

As regards water, there are indeed some extremely urgent situations, although the municipalities are fairly well prepared to deal with them. The farmers have tractors and water tanks for irrigating their fields, but with unexploded munitions preventing them from doing this they have taken advantage of the situation to distribute water to those who need it. What struck me in Lebanon was the extraordinary solidarity among the people.

This sense of solidarity has freed the ICRC to concentrate on repairing the water distribution network, which has meant working very closely with the authorities, particularly in the south. One of our tasks is to get generators up and running in strategic locations, in order to pump the water out and pipe it away from the immediate area. Our other main task is to send out mobile repair teams, consisting of a mechanical digger, a compressor, and of course workers and an engineer. We track the flow and repair the leaks fairly quickly. We expect to be able to repair the entire network within two or three months.

 What exactly is the state of the Lebanese water supply network?  

The worst destruction occurred in the south, between the Litani river and the Israeli border, as well as up towards Marjayoun and, to a lesser extent, in the Bekaa valley. The Lebanese water supply network is very sophisticated and highly interconnected, which means that breaks occurring in one particular place can have repercussions over a large part of the network.

Although it cannot be said that water installations were deliberately targeted, they did suffer damage resulting from the destruction of electricity installations. Where there is a water supply, there must also be an electricity supply; therefore, when the current is cut, the water supply will dry up. This state of affairs prompted the ICRC to take robust action to restore electrical power, in particular by delivering fuel for those generators that were still in working order, or by providing generators in places where there had been none.

The destruction of the water mains should also be mentioned, as it was caused by the bombardment of the roads and bridges. Very often, the water pipes run alongside the roads or cross the bridges; the destruction of the water supply networ k therefore does not appear to have been intentional. In the strict application of international humanitarian law, it is clear that objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population must not be attacked. However, if an attack is launched against an electricity generating station with the aim of cutting off the supply to a military barracks, it is inevitable that the water supply to residential areas or nearby villages will also be cut. The cutting of the water supply is a part of the collateral damage that must not be disproportionate to the military advantage gained. International humanitarian law strikes a balance between military imperatives and humanitarian considerations. Military commanders, along with other combatants and all those taking an active part in hostilities, have an obligation to obey the rules governing the conduct of hostilities.

 In humanitarian terms, what were the consequences for the population?  

The consequences are not hard to imagine. When people are used to having good quality water on tap and then, from one day to the next, their taps run dry, they find themselves in a very difficult situation, particularly as water is often hard to come by in Lebanon, even in the best of times.

By a stroke of good fortune, this destruction happened in places from which the local population had fled. This meant that there were few direct consequences, except, obviously, for the people who had remained trapped in their villages during the bombardments. We heard some quite distressing accounts from people who had survived for several days without eating or drinking anything at all.

 There have been numerous challenges…  

First of all, a small delegation that was barely operational had to initiate a ma jor undertaking; one of the main challenges was to set up a logistical operation in a country that was under intense bombardment, which was not an easy task. Most of the travel that was required, whether by air, sea or land, was difficult if not impossible.

Another key challenge was actually to reach the villages. When we did manage to do this early on in the conflict, we identified a large number of needs, which only served to raise the hopes of the local population. I have to say that these feelings of hope were often dashed because of concerns about security. Only rarely did the Israeli military authorities give us the go-ahead to deploy in the areas in which their forces were operating. It was extremely frustrating for the delegates, because the people were counting on us to get there.

Looking to the future, if there is no active resumption of hostilities, Lebanon will very soon be in a position to get its water production and distribution system up and running again and to maintain it. The country is well organized, remarkably vigorous and fully capable of recovering. To give just one example, I was startled to see the shopkeepers returning to their village the very same day that the ceasefire had taken effect; they raised the metal shutters of their shops and, several hours later, could be seen sitting on the pavement, puffing away at their water pipes as they waited for their customers! We hear talk of people getting used to war, but this is not the case, at least not for those living in the south of the country, who have never experienced such intense bombardments before.

 How well did you work with the Lebanese Red Cross?  

The Lebanese Red Cross is the ICRC's partner in Lebanon. It must be stressed that, from a religious and political point of view, this is one of the very few neutral bodies in the country and t he people we dealt with, whether Shiite, Sunni or Christian, all told us: “We trust the Red Cross.” This perception is of fundamental importance for the ICRC.

We worked alongside the Lebanese Red Cross medical-social service, in particular with its emergency medical service, which operates 80 per cent of the ambulances in Lebanon. I was lucky enough to be able to spend half a day in the ambulance control room in Beirut and was extremely impressed by what I saw. At any given moment, they knew the location of each ambulance, its destination, who the driver was and who else was on board. Given the situation – the state of war – this really is remarkable. Our decision to support this service right from the start turned out to be an excellent move. We provided the petrol and now we are replacing vehicles as needed. Our main contribution was to accompany some ambulances into dangerous areas, so that they could benefit from the additional protection of the ICRC. I would like to pay tribute to the first-aid worker who died in the line of duty and emphasize the courage and commitment of the ambulance crews.

We were also able to rely on the youth section of the Lebanese Red Cross. They took charge of the food distribution, particularly in the Sidon area and in Beirut; indeed, they were so efficient that we often had problems in keeping them re-supplied! Most members of the youth section were polyglot university students who were very committed to their Red Cross mission and proud to be neutral and impartial. We were able to ask a lot from them. In fact, we had to keep quite a close eye on them too, as some had a tendency to take considerable risks. For an old hand like me, it really was a pleasure to witness such a desire to serve. We worked together very closely, the atmosphere was good and, despite the circumstances, we enjoyed the experience. I take my hat off to them.