Lebanese displaced face uncertainty as border clashes intensify

Not knowing what is going to happen is the worst part, say people sheltering at a school in Lebanon

Smoke rises from Israeli artillery shelling in Dhayra, a Lebanese border village, on October 16. AP Photo\
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In the eerily silent playground, which would normally echo with the sounds of children playing, a mother silently washes her child with a can of water, standing next to a dozen chairs used as drying racks.

Inside, the classrooms, once bustling with pupils, now house whole families sitting on mattresses laid on the floor.

Some sleep, others chat, and a few warm up on a portable cooker some loubieh (haricot beans in tomato sauce) they were given a little while earlier.

They all seem to be waiting.

"This is the worst part. We don't know what's going to happen," said Kheira Abou Samra, 28.

The mother of one is among hundreds of internally displaced people being sheltered at the Technical School of Tyre in southern Lebanon.

For more than a week, Israel and Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, along with Palestinian factions, have been exchanging heavy rounds of fire at the borders with Israel, resulting in several deaths, including civilians.

This school is one of three in the coastal area that has been converted into makeshift internally displaced camps for those fleeing the deadly conflicts at the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The three centres are accommodating more than 845 people, according to official data, since the clashes started following the attack by Hamas, Hezbollah’s ally, in southern Israel last Saturday.

Ms Abou Samra had to flee with her husband from their village of Yarin, one of the areas heavily affected by the Israeli shelling.

"We were cooking in the kitchen when we heard loud shelling near by," she said. "In less than five minutes we left everything, including the food still on the stove."

This is not the first violence that Ms Abou Samra has witnessed. The area was shelled during the 2006 war, a month-long conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

"At least in 2006, Israel gave us a warning that they were going to attack," she said. "This time we were completely taken aback.

"I've tried to return twice but each time the shelling started again.

“We have nowhere else to go."

Ms Abou Samra's village is now nearly empty, she said, like many others at the frontier, amid concerns that the border region might become a second front in the war between Israel and Hamas.

'Tension unbearable' for displaced people in south of Lebanon

'Tension unbearable' for displaced people in south of Lebanon

The 28 classrooms provided for displaced people are filled with similar stories.

Moustafa Tahin, 54, along with his sister and brother, fled the border village of Eita Al Shaab.

The Israeli strikes were hitting just a few hundred metres from their home.

Mr Tahin's village had also borne the brunt of the 2006 war.

"We rebuilt everything, and now it's starting all over again," he said. "Eighteen houses in our village have suffered some damage.

"Of course we're scared, but we've also got used to it, as Israel has consistently targeted the region without regard for human rights."

For Mr Tahin, only an open conflict in Lebanon will bring an end to this situation.

"We do not have a culture of death; we have a culture of life, but there is no other solution to resolve the situation, to reclaim our land and rights.”

Emergency meetings

The Tyre Municipal Union, next to the school, is filled with volunteers co-ordinating the emergency response.

On Monday, the southern Governor, Mansour Daou, the Director of the Tyre Municipal Union, Hassan Dbouk, and the head of emergency crisis unit, Mohamad Mourtada, held a lively meeting, one of many dedicated to humanitarian response.

Before them, a screen provides real-time updates on the count of registered displaced people.

The actual number could be higher, considering that many of them are likely to have not yet completed the registration process.

"The situation has led to significant displacement, with two or three villages almost completely evacuated and others partially so," Mr Dbouk said.

"We are offering shelter to those who couldn't find refuge with their families or friends."

The Tyre emergency centre, which co-ordinates the response, has been facing increasing challenges as the number of displaced people continues to grow.

"We are securing blankets, mattresses, food, and, most importantly, essential medications and infant formula," Mr Dbouk said.

He said they are addressing the situation day by day, with the support of local and international NGOs, and political parties such as Hezbollah's ally, the Amal Movement.

But the aid falls short of fully addressing the crisis, and in the event of an escalation, there are uncertainties.

"Inshallah, there won't be a larger crisis, and inshallah, we will be prepared," Mr Dbouk said.

“For now, the situation is under control and it's not as extensive as it was in 2006 when the entire south was affected."

When asked about assistance from the cash-strapped Lebanese state, struggling with one of the worst crises in recent history, he simply replied, after a brief pause: "Nothing, they just applaud us."

Updated: October 17, 2023, 1:13 PM