Disbelief. It was the one word I heard over and over once I finally reached Beirut. Whether it was from individuals or non-governmental organizations, the description was of complete astonishment at the bombardment of a country that was finally transitioning out of war. It was not horror or fear, but an overwhelming sense of disbelief that within 34 days, Lebanon had faced so much death and destruction as the world stood by. The main victims were women and children as a political and psychological war was being waged at the expense of such a fragile country.
Most Lebanese could not comprehend that civil society had been transitioning into creating a solid national agenda, but overnight, the process was pushed back to the very beginning.
Driving in from the northern border of, I could not comprehend the level of destruction. Road barriers in front of demolished bridges directed anyone who dared to enter Lebanon to alternative routes, a reminder that in this conflict, any area was considered fair game. A two-hour drive into Beirut took me seven hours instead.
Lebanon is not new to war. Although this was its sixth conflict with Israel, many people hastily pointed out why this war was so drastically different. The destruction to infrastructure and livelihood was absolute. The targeting of civilians seemed to be globally accepted. A neutral voice was absent. Any diplomatic end to the conflict seemed to be a far off dream. The destruction appeared endless. The disproportionate use of force by Israel against Lebanon had not created an international outcry, but instead instigated a discussion about the need to create a “new Middle East.”
Most countries in such a situation would have thrown their hands up in despair. Instead, the Lebanese seemed to move into auto-pilot and began to organize to help the displaced people flooding into the capital and mountain areas. Different religious and political groups agreed that Lebanon would rebuild. Banners on buildings and billboards in the streets vowed to rebuild and reminded the Lebanese that the sun was hiding behind the clouds.
People fled to the capital trying to escape the Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon. Beirut is considered to be among the safe areas … or rather, safer areas in the country. One morning during my stay, the sun rose to the sound of bombings echoed throughout central Beirut and set to the sound of bombings that were much closer and deadlier. The bombing of a mostly residential area verified the worst fears of the Lebanese: Israel’s “no limits” policy was not only in full effect but unchallenged by the international community.
Many people repeatedly asked me what it would take to get international attention. Would we need another Qana to get outrage and sympathy? Even that seemed to dissipate.
The worst part of this humanitarian crisis is that it was eclipsed by regional politics. The discussion around sustainable peace assumed that as world leaders gathered to find a solution, the Lebanese would simply hide under an umbrella as bombs rained down on them. The lives lost, the people displaced, and the infrastructure destroyed were all treated as secondary and less important issues. Aid agencies were allowed no access to the south, even in southern Beirut, and despite repeated cries for humanitarian corridors, none were provided . Oxfam has planned to spend as much as $2.8 million to help at least 50,000 people within the first three months. But like so many other projects, the main plan depends on the security situation and access to communities.
The sound of generators and bombs in central Beirut brings flashbacks of my time in Iraq. This reminds me only too well that Lebanon is not the only humanitarian crisis that has been eclipsed by politics. In fact, each crisis seems to eclipse another. Whether it’s the global war on terror or simply the fact that this region of the world continues to misbehave, a series of events has created humanitarian crises that are still unresolved. The people of Afghanistan will be the first to remind the world of their unmet needs. Meanwhile, as 60 Iraqis are killed every day the main debate in the West is whether to call it a civil war. And what of Palestine? Although the crisis in Gaza had focused international attention on the Palestinian territories, the war in Lebanon overshadowed everything.
Humanitarian crises in the region, in fact, must compete for international and media attention and donor support much like a reality television show. People have developed short attention spans, and it almost seems as if a crisis is chosen as the flavor of the month. I almost feel guilty for being in Beirut, knowing that Iraq is in chaos and Afghanistan is not much better. More and more, the question remains, when does the crisis really come to an end? Is it when it is no longer shown live on television?