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.
||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
|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
|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.
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
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 is a freelance journalist based in Paris.
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