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A page is turned in southern Lebanon
by Caroline Donati

Transfer of Lebanese detainees from Israel to southern Lebanon in June 1998.

In May 2000, after 22 years of occupation, Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon. How did the local population cope with their long ordeal?

And what lies in store now that the troops have gone?

" It was only when we saw the Red Cross standing beside the mayor that we knew that we were truly free." Amné is the principal of the school in Aramta, a small, remote village in southern Lebanon flanked by the old front line which, from 1978 to 2000, stood between the opposing sides in the conflict. Her words speak volumes on the impact of the ICRC's operation during this war of occupation which ended on 24 May last year.

Throughout the war years, the ICRC, from its two bases in the heart of the occupied zone, had immersed itself in the daily life of the civilian population, ably supported by the Lebanese Red Cross. "The Red Cross was an essential feature of our lives, it was our right arm," says Doctor Madi, director of the hospital in Marjayoun, former headquarters of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), the Lebanese militia allied to the Israeli Defence Forces. The ICRC repatriated the wounded requiring emergency treatment outside the occupied zone, transported patients to their homes during the curfews, replenished medical supplies and delivered mail. In so doing, it enabled the hospital to fulfil its many tasks and to maintain some semblance of normality in the midst of war. In 1987, with the protection and logistical help of the ICRC, the Marjayoun hospital was able to implement a medical prevention programme in the farthest-flung villages of the zone. Each year, more than 3,000 food parcels and essential relief supplies were distributed to high-risk or isolated villages in southern Lebanon.


13 April 1975 Beginning of the civil war.
14 March 1978 'Operation Litani', first Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. Israel retains control of an area of several hundred kilometres.
6 June 1982 'Operation Peace in Galilee', the Israeli army enters Lebanon and gains control of Beirut.
1984 The Khiam detention centre opens.
15 January 1985 Israel adopts a phased withdrawal plan, maintaining a so-called 'security zone' of 850 square kilometres controlled with the help of a Lebanese militia, the South Lebanon Army.
22 October 1989 The Taif Accords end the civil war. The war continues in southern Lebanon.
25-31 July 1993 In retaliation for the military activities of the Lebanese resistance, Israel unleashes 'Operation Bring Justice'. The offensive leaves 132 dead, mostly Lebanese civilians.
11-27 April 1996 Following weeks of tension between the Hezbollah and the Israeli army, Israel unleashes 'Operation Grapes of Wrath', in which 164 people die, among them 100 civilian refugees in a United Nations camp at Cana, and 351 are wounded.
24 May 2000 Israeli troops withdraw from southern Lebanon. On the second day of the withdrawal, the local population frees the prisoners in Khiam.

The ICRC and the Lebanese Red Cross serve as a vital link for those separated from family and friends.


Family links

Above all, the ICRC acted as a vital go-between for two countries at war. "When a man's son is either captured or dead, the ICRC's contacts are like a message between the enemy and Lebanon, similar to a bearer of good tidings," says Abou Ziad. With the ICRC acting as a neutral intermediary, he was able to recover the body of his son killed in action and repatriated to Israel. The ICRC has also conveyed thousands of messages between Lebanon and Israel: in 1999, 7,134 Red Cross messages were exchanged between Lebanese detainees held in the Khiam prison and in Israel and their families.

The ICRC went to enormous lengths to gain access to the Khiam prison - a detention centre where more than 120 people were held, civilians as well as members of armed groups. It took the organization ten years of perseverance to get the necessary authorization from the authorities concerned. Since 1989, the detainees in Khiam had been clamouring for the Red Cross to be allowed entry.

From October 1995, the time of the ICRC's first visit to Khiam, not only was there a significant improvement in the material conditions of detention, but the detainees regained a sense of being human. "When I received my first letter with a photo of my nephew, I knew that I existed, that I was alive," recalls Suleiman Ramadan, a former prisoner. "It was the most beautiful moment of my life." He complains, however, of the too-frequent turnover of humanitarian staff: "Each time, we went over the same questions, the same problems that we had already explained to the previous delegate." To overcome the isolation of the detainees and their families, who were often expelled from the zone, visits were organized every three months.

Emergency to prevention

Established in Lebanon since 1992, the Federation developed its operation in response to the needs in southern Lebanon, in coordination with the ICRC and through the National Society. From 1994, the Palestinian refugees received assistance through the Palestinian Red Crescent. At the end of the Israeli occupation, a new approach was developed. "It is no longer a case of differentiating the assistance but of thinking nationally, by assisting the National Society to define its needs better and to develop its potential," explains Ole Guldahl, head of the Federation delegation in Lebanon. The long years of war have enabled the Lebanese Red Cross to acquire a solid capacity for emergency intervention; now it must adapt to peacetime and reorient its activities towards prevention and development.


Towards reconciliation?

Antoinette, a mother of two who was herself detained in Khiam for a month, was expelled from southern Lebanon after her husband was arrested. Cut off in Beirut, she had only the ICRC to turn to. "The ICRC was my family," she says. "It still is." Like many others, she fears the departure of the humanitarian organization while peace has still not been restored to the region. For its part, the ICRC endeavours to reassure the local population by maintaining a dialogue with the local authorities and the Lebanese government. Already, as part of the emergency plan to deal with the repercussions of the Israeli withdrawal, the Marjayoun hospital has been taken in hand for three months, including payment of salaries and maintenance. The Lebanese Red Cross has hired 20 extra staff since the end of June 2000 in order to provide care and food assistance to the population. The National Society has also had to adapt to the post-withdrawal environment, that is, to continue to promote humanitarian ideals in a context where social needs have taken over from emergency needs. The dismantling of the local administration has led to a de facto disappearance of the existing socio-economic fabric. The ICRC is keeping a close eye on the situation of the civilian population, in particular that of Lebanese citizens who, having crossed into Israel at the time of the Israeli withdrawal, have returned to Lebanon. The ICRC, in cooperation with the Lebanese Red Cross, has also developed a mine-awareness campaign, following numerous incidents, mostly involving children, along the old front lines and around former military positions. "It is hoped that providing specific responses to the various humanitarian problems can help to bridge the huge divide between the different communities that has been created by the conflict," sums up Henry Fournier, head of the ICRC's delegation in Lebanon.

Caroline Donati
Caroline Donati is a freelance journalist based in Paris.

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