Three weeks after the ceasefire that ended the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, residents in Lebanon are struggling to rebuild. Thousands of families returning to their homes now face the daunting task of clearing away the rubble and coping with the destruction. Democracy Now!’s Ana Nogueira files a report from Lebanon. [includes rush transcript]
Three weeks after the ceasefire that ended the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, residents in Lebanon are struggling to rebuild. Israel’s bombardment of the country destroyed homes, bridges, roads, water treatment plants, supermarkets and fuel tanks.
International donors pledged one billion dollars for reconstruction efforts at a conference last week in Sweden. The Lebanese government estimates it will need at least three and a half times that amount to repair the damage and the money may take months to come in.
Thousands of families returning to their homes now face the daunting task of clearing away the rubble and starting to rebuild. Democracy Now producer Ana Noguiera is in southern Beirut. She filed this report.
- Ana Nogueira reports from southern Lebanon
ANA NOGUEIRA: Shock and awe — the phrase accurately describes the reactions of residents of Dahiye, Beirut as they look over what remains of their neighborhood. 198 buildings were completely demolished here during the 34 days of Israeli air raids. Another 200 were so badly damaged that they will have to be brought down.
SALEEM: [translated] I have friends in all of the buildings. One of them is still there under the rubble. There was a little space in front of the building. Now it’s gone. We used to play soccer here.
ANA NOGUEIRA: As the bulldozers and backhoes move Dahiye’s rubble to a dumpsite on the outskirts of town, residents scour through the remains to find anything they can salvage.
NADA HAMDAN: [translated] I’m coming here to see if I’m able to get things of sentimental value from my house, so that I can tell my children about the house and let them know what Israel has done to us and how badly. This was a 12-story building. Imagine, now its height is no more than two meters.
ANA NOGUEIRA: Despite the overwhelming sense of grief and destruction here, people like Nada Hamdan feel victorious.
NADA HAMDAN: [translated] We don’t see this as destruction. We see it as a rebirth. We have our dignity, pride and steadfastness. This is not a defeat for us. It’s a defeat for Israel.
MIRVAT BASI: [translated] My name is Mirvat Basi. I used to live here in that building on the ninth floor. Now the building is destroyed. There is nothing left. Thank god, all of this does not matter. The most important thing is that we won.
ANA NOGUEIRA: Approximately 130,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in Lebanon, creating a severe housing crisis. Many homes that were damaged but remain standing are now housing two or three families in a room. Hezbollah’s rebuilding brigade, which calls itself “Construction Jihad,” and the government’s all-volunteer emergency response team, Civil Defence, are working 12 hours a day to remove the rubble. The task is daunting. This area looks like the aftermath of September 11th, but about 100 times over. Hezbollah’s ambitious promise to have Dahiye rebuilt within a year seems like a lifetime away.
At the recent donors conference in Sweden, almost $1 billion was pledged to help Lebanon rebuild. The Lebanese government has said it will give $33,000 to each family that was left homeless, but many residents are skeptical the government will come through. Ali Zreik, for example, says he has yet to meet a government representative.
ALI ZREIK: [translated] The Lebanese state has not come here to ask us what we need after all this destruction. They’re quite non-existent on the scene. All the work here is being done by the residents, by volunteers and by Hezbollah. We asked the government to come and look at us. So far, no one from the government has come here to see how they can help us.
ANA NOGUEIRA: Before the donors conference even started, Hezbollah had already doled out up to $12,000 to each family whose home was destroyed or damaged in Dahiye. This cash in hand was urgently needed for so many left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. This is Sheikh Khodor Noredden from Hezbollah’s Political Council.
SHEIKH KHODOR NOREDDEN: We have about 7,000 families homeless today. And the winter will be after two months, and the schools also will open after two months. And we have a bad state for our people here. We don’t like to replace government here, but if the government will not do anything, we will start rebuilding, after removing rubbles, which we have now.
ANA NOGUEIRA: The volunteer group, Civil Defence, which was on the frontlines removing bodies from the rubble during the war, are now also on the ground helping Hezbollah clean up. This is their chief of operations, Houssam Chamas.
HOUSSAM CHAMAS: [translated] During the war, we provided water and removed bodies from the ruins and ambulances. That was the first step. Now, we are focused on removing rubble from the streets, but it’s a difficult task, because of all the unexploded weapons. We work with architects to remove the ruins. We also help people if they want to retrieve any personal belongings from under the rubble.
ANA NOGUEIRA: Volunteers from one of the country’s largest Christian political parties, the Free Patriotic Movement, are also on the ground. This is Nicolas Ibrahim.
NICOLAS IBRAHIM: [translated] Today, we are 60 persons from the Free Patriotic Movement working in Dahiye. Every day we have work. Last Friday, we cleaned a street in [inaudible] area. Today, we cleaned a church and its surroundings, and we are distributing water here.
ANA NOGUEIRA: In southern Lebanon, the destruction is proportionately just as great, but bulldozers are few and far between. People here are manually clearing chunks of broken concrete from the roads and reshaping them into walls that contain the rubble from their homes. Again, Hezbollah is the main coordinator of these efforts. This is Hezbollah volunteer coordinator, Saeed Jamil, from the border town of Aita Chaab.
SAEED JAMIL: [translated] We are cleaning up the roads, but the bulldozers are not here yet. We are only in a first stage, which is the priority of financial compensation to the people. 90% of the houses here are completely demolished. The rest of the houses are partially damaged. So, it’s a big task ahead of us.
ANA NOGUEIRA: The yellow uniformed workers of Hezbollah’s Construction Jihad are there, too. Zihmazad Hirani explained how they go about their work.
ZIHMAZAD HIRANI: In every house we come, I check the walls. I check the whole home, okay, from the kitchen, from every, every, every room. After we check the houses, we take the file and take it to Jihad al-Bina’a. They read our files, and they assume how much money we have to pay for this person.
ANA NOGUEIRA: The only other group on the ground here is a coalition of activists under the name of Samidoun, or Steadfastness. Reminiscent of the volunteer-driven recovery group Common Ground in New Orleans, the group started by helping displaced people in Beirut and are now working with Hezbollah to help distribute the aid that is dropped off here by international NGOs. This is Samidoun volunteer, Ali Mohammed.
ALI MOHAMMED: Our duty is to cover the whole village with food, hygiene kits, and shelters, like tents, mattresses and blankets. And then, our job is to manage all the donations we get from the UN, from the Red Cross International and then from different foundations in the country. They come here. They unload the stuff. We put them in the storage. And then we start giving them to the families. The Lebanese government, we just got some food supplies from them. This is the only collaboration we got. And Hezbollah, they have been helping us on the field dealing with the people, and then they helped us with the statistics. And then, they know the families better than us. Then, they know how to deal with them better than us.
ANA NOGUEIRA: This is Aita Chaab resident and mother of five, Fatima Jamil Bajuk.
FATIMA JAMIL BAJOUK: [translated] Samidoun is distributing water and food, and we thank them for their help. Construction Jihad and Hezbollah brought architects to our house. They saw the damage, and they said they will have to demolish it and rebuild it again, because it is not stable, it is not safe.
When I came back to my village, I was shocked to see the destruction, the crimes, all the martyrs. I was disturbed by the situation. I cried a lot. But I am also happy, because Aita Chaab held on and resisted, and people are coming back. We are happy, because when we came back, even though we don’t have much, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have drinking water, we have the land that we love.
ANA NOGUEIRA: The Bush administration has offered $230 million in reconstruction aid and hopes to be considered for reconstruction contracts. But to Ayman Bajouk and many of his neighbors, the U.S. aid offer is part of the same story of war profiteering.
AYMAN BAJOUK: [translated] The Americans sent $230 million in aid. I want to say to them: take it back; we don’t want your money.
ANA NOGUEIRA: Sheikh Khodor Noredden of Hezbollah’s Political Council agrees.
SHEIKH KHODOR NOREDDEN: United States of America only talk. They don’t do anything. And if they will help, they will help with conditions. And we will not accept their conditions, because if we take help from any place, we will take help without any conditions, okay? And let them go and pay for their people in New Orleans. Until now, they didn’t pay for them. Let them help their people before helping others in the world, before helping the Israeli people. Let them go to help their people in New Orleans, who we heard about them, that until now, they didn’t rebuild their cities.
ANA NOGUEIRA: For Democracy Now!, this is Ana Nogueira in Lebanon.