Waiting Anxiously for Word From Family

At a Beirut high school being used as a shelter, two displaced Lebanese react to a television report that members of their family were killed by an Israeli airstrike Saturday while fleeing a town in the southern part of the country.
At a Beirut high school being used as a shelter, two displaced Lebanese react to a television report that members of their family were killed by an Israeli airstrike Saturday while fleeing a town in the southern part of the country. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

BEIRUT, July 17 -- The families started arriving at Shakib Arslan High School days ago, by car, van and bus from battered neighborhoods of Beirut and southern Lebanon. There were a few at first, some with only the clothes they were wearing. By Monday, the pilgrimage had brought more than 1,000. They threw frayed blankets, foam mattresses and cheap mats over dusty tile floors, staking claims to a sunlit courtyard that, in a capricious war, had become sanctuary.

"There's no way for any of us to know anything here," said Hassan Abdullah, whose mother and two brothers were trapped in the south. The wiry 24-year-old shook his head. "I just don't know anything about them."

In six days of Israeli strikes that followed Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, more than 60,000 Lebanese have been driven from their homes, an estimate that officials acknowledged was conservative. The exodus has overwhelmed Lebanon's already feeble infrastructure, swamping schools, clubs, mosques and churches in the capital and its mountain hinterland. In a war many Lebanese suspect will last weeks, months or perhaps longer, the unknown sometimes inspires the greatest fear.

"We're praying for them to be safe," Abdullah, who was at the school with another brother, said of his family.

"God save them," added his friend, Ayman Ghannam, 26.

The exodus that has washed over Beirut has sharpened Lebanon's myriad sectarian divisions: At the high school, a Sunni Muslim family fought a Shiite family over their opinions of Hezbollah and the conflict. But in a campaign that has gathered momentum in the past day, traditional parties have come together -- Druze, Christian and Sunni -- to provide food, shelter, mattresses and clothes. Radio stations have pleaded for help for the refugees, and television stations have broadcast a scrolling bar appealing for donations. Activists have inundated friends with text messages and e-mails, seeking their help.

"They've been at each other's throats, and now they're coordinating. That's the essence of it," said Rabi Bashour, helping coordinate efforts with friends at two Beirut schools housing 750 displaced people. "In Lebanon, unity takes place when it's not about politics anymore. And it's not about politics. It's about the country getting through this."

With a dozen other people, some drawn from a social work organization, Bashour has helped distribute more than 400 packages of bread, cheese, tuna, canned meat and milk to families like Abdullah's. They have relied on donations: One friend called to say he was bringing 200 loaves of bread by car. For children, they have brought diapers, baby food and baby milk. A mobile clinic from the hospital at the American University of Beirut has provided medical care.

As they work, television stations -- al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and Lebanese counterparts -- punctuate the day with reports of more casualties: On this day, 10 civilians were killed when an Israeli attack struck two cars crossing a bridge.

"It's like each one of us has his own moment of silence and goes on with work," Bashour said. "We have to go on."

While Lebanese factions have fiercely disagreed over the war itself, to a striking degree they have come together to help the displaced, who are mainly poor Shiite Muslims, Hezbollah's base of support. Supporters of Michel Aoun, a Christian leader who has a tactical alliance with Hezbollah, have been among the most energetic. But even the factions most at odds with Hezbollah -- the Druze led by Walid Jumblatt, for instance -- have come to their aid in his community's mountainous redoubt in the north.

"People are the same in hardship," said Ghassan Mahm, a Jumblatt follower in Barouk, a town in the Chouf Mountains, where more than 800 people have filled 40 schools perched along winding, misty roads.


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