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Fighting Drives Lebanese North to Beirut


On Friday, Israeli dropped leaflets along the border warning Lebanese residents to leave the area for their own safety. Those who could begin heading north and are among the throngs are pouring into the capital city, Beirut and smaller towns along the way.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Beirut.


It's an instinctive mechanism, and one that the Lebanese have honed over decades of civil war and fighting with Israel: when the bombs start falling, get out of the neighborhood.

Peter Bookard(ph) with Human Rights Watch says well over half a million people in Lebanon are on the road.

Mr. PETER BOOKARD (Human Rights Watch): The displacement which is taking place is almost unprecedented. In one week, one eighth of the population of Lebanon has been displaced by this Israeli offensive. If you compare that with Kosovo, 300,000 people in Kosovo were displaced during a six-month Serbian offensive.

NORTHAM: Beirut's parks are filled with refugees and more than 100,000 people are staying at local schools.

(Soundbite of children)

NORTHAM: Every room at Ramah Al-Sarif(ph) High School is filled with families. Babies lie on old mattresses, men pass a day playing cards and puffing on water pipes, and women fuss over hot plates in the darkened corridors.

Samad Halleway(ph) with the Communist Party says this high school is just too full.

Mr. SAMAD HALLEWAY (Communist Party): Here the school is, I mean, it could send only 450-500 ones and there are 700 ones in here. So you cannot imagine the situation. People are sitting and sleeping in the corridors outside. It's considered super-saturated.

NORTHAM: Many of the displaced, like 67-year-old Zena Merhi(ph) from South Lebanon, have been through this before.

Ms. ZENA MERHI (Displaced Lebanese Resident) (Through translator): We were refugees in 1976, then in 1983. I know from experience it was time to go.

NORTHAM: Local political parties and aid agencies are organizing the refugees. At a nearby Catholic school, members of Hezbollah are sorting out food, medicine and clothing for the displaced residents. It's one of about 70 schools Hezbollah is present at during the crisis.

The organization's also coordinated huge food drives. A spokesman who goes by the name Abu Heider(ph) says it's not at all surprising that Hezbollah is helping.

Mr. AUB HEIDER (Hezbollah Spokesman) (Through translator): By nature, Hezbollah has the capability and the duty to help people and provide shelter. The network is known for its social services and work on the ground.

NORTHAM: International aid agencies and some European countries are amassing the necessities for the displaced. Yusef Snadi(ph), living at the Catholic schools, says he's going to be choosy about where the aid comes from.

Mr. YUSEF SNADI (Displaced Lebanese Resident) (Through translator): If we get any aid from the U.S., we'll burn it in the garbage. We don't want any aid from the U.S., nor from Israel.

NORTHAM: Israeli bombs have destroyed many of Lebanon's key roads and bridges. Israel says it will allow a corridor to funnel humanitarian aid into areas, especially in South Lebanon. But Altaf Musani with the World Health Organization says so far no details have been worked out.

Mr. ALTAF MUSANI (World Health Organization): Our challenge is just making sure that humanitarian convoys, be it trucks through sea routes, through air routes, are guaranteed a safe passage into these places, and we just need to make sure that that stuff gets done there.

NORTHAM: Musani says undoubtedly there are women, children and people with chronic conditions who need help. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.