Red Cross stages risky mission to bring rare help to conflict-hit south Lebanon

The National accompanied Red Cross workers on trip to assist about 60,000 people still living near the border with Israel despite daily violence

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It is 6.30 in the morning, but the small group of Red Cross workers and journalists is already buzzing with energy as they prepare for the journey from Beirut to Lebanon's deep south where border communities have been shattered by months of Israeli attacks.

“Don't worry,” Roy Al Chidiac says as he hands out a security waiver. “This is how we'll protect you,” he adds, pointing to his International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) badge with a wit that the early hour has obviously not dulled.

The small group is about to participate in one of the biggest humanitarian campaigns launched by the ICRC in Lebanon, in collaboration with the Lebanese Red Cross, since the border conflict between Lebanese armed group Hezbollah and the Israeli military began eight months ago.

The month-long initiative, launched at the end of May, aims to give food parcels to about 8,000 families across 51 locations in southern Lebanon within 5km of the Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel.

Hezbollah opened a front on Israel's northern border in support of the Palestinian group Hamas, its ally, on October 8. Israel vowed to destroy Hamas after its deadly attack on southern Israel a day earlier, which sparked a deadly Israeli retaliation that has left the territory in ruins and killed more than 36,700 people.

Since then, Hezbollah have traded fire almost daily, mostly confined to the border area. The attacks have killed at least 455 people in Lebanon, mostly fighters but including 88 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

At least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed in Israel's north, according to the military. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced on both sides of the border.

But some have stayed behind.

Cut off in a war zone

About 60,000 people still live within about 10km to 15km from the border with Israel, according to Simone Casabianca-Aeschlimann, the head of the ICRC delegation in Beirut who was taking part in the aid delivery trip.

They are the targeted beneficiaries of ICRC's humanitarian campaign. “We're focusing on the population who have been directly affected by the eight months of hostilities,” she said.

The Red Cross workers will assess the needs of the people in the area to help them more effectively in future campaigns.

Some villages close to the border have not been targeted directly, or only occasionally, making it possible for residents to stay. But after eight months, living conditions in the border areas are getting worse.

Help so far has been scarce as Lebanon, grappling with an unprecedented economic crisis since 2019, is unable to provide citizens with basic social support.

'Dead' economic life

The ICRC convoy halts midway for a debrief. The first distribution will take place in Borj El Mlouk, a village of around 2,000 inhabitants and part of the so-called "Christian corridor", which has been relatively spared from hostilities.

In contrast, Khiam, the second stop, has been targeted by Israeli shelling. For safety reasons, only one of the team will go to the village to hand over the parcels to the mayor.

Humanitarian workers are not immune from attack. In March, an Israeli strike killed seven aid workers at an emergency centre in south Lebanon,.

“We have what we call a duty of care, obligation towards our team. So if we cannot go, then we will not go,” Ms Casabianca-Aeschlimann said.

“But there is never zero risk because it's unfortunately the nature of our job.”

Upon arrival in Borj El Mlouk, the ICRC team is joined by the Lebanese Red Cross. The distribution is co-ordinated with the municipality.

The mayor, Elie Sleiman, told The National that the help is “much needed”.

“People live off their savings and the aid they are receiving; all the youth are unemployed, and all the shops are closed,” Mr Sleiman said.

“Economic life is dead.”

Farmers have been particularly affected in a region where agriculture is usually the mainstay of most households' livelihoods.

“Farmers have been unable to access their land because it's too dangerous. We used to cultivate olives, pine nuts, tobacco, we use to make honey … it has all completely stopped,” Mr Sleiman said.

Wafa Raghda, 42, a single mother of three, is one of the 500 beneficiaries that day. She said the bombings had damaged her house but she cannot afford to pay rent elsewhere.

“There is no work, no schools; the kids are learning online. We get scared if someone gets sick. We don’t know where the situation is going and for how long it will continue.”

With the conflict escalating in recent weeks and diplomatic efforts stalled, the future prospects for southern residents like her are bleak.

“This question of the day after is really something that keeps us awake at night because there is no answer,” Ms Casabianca-Aeschlimann said.

Updated: June 08, 2024, 4:00 AM