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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Dans les ruines du Liban Sud

by Pierre Barbancey, Special correspondent, Southern Lebanon

In the Ruins of Southern Lebanon

Translated Friday 27 October 2006, by Patrick Bolland

After the war. Villages have been destroyed by the Israeli attacks. The return to school has been chaotic. Fragmentation bombs still can explode at any time. Death remains close at hand and help far away.

Special report from the villages of Ainata, Aitaroun, Bint Jbeil, Houla (Southern Lebanon).

Mohammad Chabib Koteich, with his cap pulled down over his eyes. His forehead is sweating profusely. From the hillside where we stand, he gestures with his hand to show us the land below. “Down there is Palestine”, he says. Further into the distance, one sees the roof-tiles typical of houses in the Israeli settlements. And, straight away, he points to the pile of rubble at his feet: “That is what’s left of my house. An Israeli commando came three days before the end of the war. Soldiers put plastic explosives in the house and everything blew up. There was nothing left in the rubble”.

Mohammad expresses deep anger. A mason by profession, he lost everything in a few seconds: his home, the few head of cattle he owned and his precious tractor, which allowed him to get minimal subsistence from his fields. Today, he divides his time between working on building sites to earn a living and feed his family, and rebuilding his own house. Meanwhile he is renting a few rooms in the village. “We have been completely abandoned” he explained, with resignation. “It has been like this for two months.” He tells us he has received no help whatsoever, neither from the State nor even from Hezbollah. “They speak to each other and forget about us.”

Everything has become more expensive

The reconstruction of Lebanon is barely starting, two months after the end of the war. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 10% of the Lebanese population, from 400,000 to 500,000 people, are living today in a highly precarious situation. The UN Agency also estimates that the homes of between 150,000 and 200.000 people have been completely destroyed by Israeli bombardments. Traditionally, in the winter, families from South Lebanon spend the winter in the southern suburbs of Beirut, when there is little to do in the fields. But because of the destruction of so much housing around Beirut, “rents have soared, and generally, everything costs more”, explains Stephane Jacquemet, UNHCR representative in Lebanon. “Since the war these populations have become more and more marginalized.” The conflict has also brought a major loss in agricultural income, most of the population of South Lebanon moving away during the farming season to escape the hostilities. Since then, families who came back cannot work in the fields because of the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs. Children are losing their lives handling these deadly devices.

This is confirmed by Najib Kassouan, the mayor of AÏtaroun. “We have had an enormous amount of victims, 45 dead and as many wounded. Most have been children” he emphasizes. “Reconstruction has not started. The village economy is based on agriculture. There are unexploded fragmentation bombs everywhere in the fields. No government representative has been to the village and the people are very worried.” Brahim Sayed Ahmad stands at the edge of his olive grove. He walks very cautiously toward a tree and shows a bomb which is just waiting for a vibration of some kind to explode. It is no bigger than a tennis ball and contains a steel ball capable of piercing through 15 cm of reinforced concrete. The white ribbon attached to it signals the danger. Brahim has marked the spot with pebbles. “The experts who came told us not to shake the trees, because there might be other bombs attached to the branches. One thing is sure, the olive harvest is lost.”

A few kilometers away, it is his brother Ali who contemplates the disaster, standing in front of his tobacco field. “Usually, one starts harvesting in August. Now it is out of the question. Look at all these bombs around.” The UNHCR representative estimates, optimistically, that “due to the presence of 47 international and Lebanese mine-clearing teams, the great majority of the unexploded bombs will have been removed by the end of 2007.”

Insufficient help

While he is speaking, we can’t help noticing a white streak of smoke flashing across the sky. Once more, the Israeli air-force is invading the Lebanese airspace, as it has done non-stop for years. The pilot flies in concentric circles, as if to show its contempt for the Lebanese soldiers, guns in hands, unable to react. “If we also had planes, believe me, the Israelis would never dare do this,” says a Lebanese sergeant. More seriously, even though he does not mention this, it is the very authority of the Lebanese army, newly based in South Lebanon, which is being held up to ridicule, while the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, (UNIFIL) watches impotently.

In Bint Jbeil, the ravages left by the relentless Israeli assault are still clearly visible: a tangle of concrete and with twisted metal, walls smashed….The souk, which was ancient and part of the town heritage has been seriously damaged. “We work 18 hours a day. People come to ask for water containers, for tents…We are powerless in front of this tragedy; the help we receive is nothing like enough to answer the needs,” explains Mohammad Esseily, the head of the municipality. One thousand houses have been completely reduced to rubble, 3500 received direct hits, a third of which have to be demolished. Of the nine schools of the city, seven have been destroyed. Like in many other areas, last week’s beginning of the new term was chaotic and the classrooms which still exist have to be rotated between different classes. “It is Qatar that is helping us now. The State was never interested in us”, the mayor tells us. “It is as if Bint Jbeil was being punished for resisting the Israeli invasion.”

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