Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lebanon, a unique example of humanitarian solidarity

Lebanon, a unique example of humanitarian solidarity
By David Shearer

I left Beirut last week feeling that in the few short months I was the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon, I witnessed the Lebanese people in their very best light. Lebanon was my 11th assignment to a humanitarian emergency. It is from that perspective that I judge recent events in the country and how its people responded to the war with Israel.

When I arrived in July, with the conflict raging, 1 million people - nearly a quarter of the country's population - were in flight, living in areas away from the fighting and the air and artillery assault on their communities, to the safety of Beirut, North Lebanon or Syria. Only weeks later, with the cessation of hostilities on August 14, these same people were on the move again, this time in a rush back to their homes, so many of which were unfortunately found damaged or destroyed. To my mind, the most intriguing thing about this large-scale migration was just how orderly and without incident it was. What other country could experience such a mass movement of its citizens in the heat of war and have virtually no incidence of hunger, malnutrition or deadly disease? In my experience, it's simply unprecedented. For our part, the UN agencies and non-governmental organizations gave help where needed - with food, water, medicine, tents, blankets and cooking utensils, even some psychological support. We were also able - thanks to our ability to communicate directly with the Israelis - to keep the humanitarian convoys moving. Some 80 trucks and two ships, in all, continued to deliver our relief supplies and those of the Lebanese government as well, even in the heat of war.

But the true safety net in this emergency proved to be the Lebanese people, themselves. Regardless of religion or ethnic background, families, even whole communities, embraced those fleeing the fighting, taking them into their homes and feeding and caring for them. To my mind, this is what humanitarian assistance is all about, and the Lebanese people proved in their compassion to be a model for the world.

It's now been just five weeks since the cessation of hostilities, and the humanitarian relief phase is pretty much over. For the most part all who needed food have been fed. Medicine chests in hospitals and clinics throughout the country are now full. And while water distribution in the South will continue for some weeks, government agencies, with the support of the UN and NGOs, are hard at work repairing critical storage tanks and water supply lines. A few days ago I took a trip through South Lebanon. What was most amazing to me was to see how much of the reconstruction process is already under way. Lebanese communities have moved quickly to clean up the rubble of war. And dozens of government work crews could be seen strung all along the roadways, installing the new electrical lines and transformers that are quickly returning light and heat to communities and schools and that will power the generators and pumps to bring back regular supplies of water.The reconstruction process will not happen overnight, particularly given the large scale of destruction, and the lingering legacy of those 300,000-plus cluster-bomb sub-munitions that will continue to endanger lives and livelihoods for some time to come. But thanks to the $900 million committed to recovery by donors at the Stockholm conference in early September, and significant bilateral donations from Gulf countries and elsewhere, the government and municipalities will have the resources in hand for a well-planned recovery. Humanitarian relief efforts can sometimes drag on too long and overstay their need. This is one event in which the Lebanese people themselves helped speed the relief phase. Our job is done, and I take my leave, comfortable in the knowledge that the Lebanese government and its people, with the continuing assistance of UN development agencies and NGOs, are moving ahead confidently with the recovery process.

On a personal note, it has been an honor and a privilege for me to work with the people of Lebanon in their time of crisis. They've taught me a lesson about compassion and solidarity in the face of turmoil. I have no doubt that their wonderful energy and sense of optimism will be the mortar for building a better country than the one that has been so painfully damaged.

David Shearer was the UN humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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