Beirut Refugees Seek Shelter in Parking Lot
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Humanitarian workers estimate the conflict in Lebanon has displaced some 800,000 people, almost a fifth of the Lebanese population. The wealthier victims are taking shelter in hotels, with relatives, or have simply fled the country. Those less fortunate are sleeping on the floors of schools, mosques, and in parks.
NPR's Ivan Watson takes a look at one makeshift shelter that sprang up in a Beirut underground parking lot.
IVAN WATSON reporting:
Two days before the war started, Lebanon's prime minister attended the opening ceremony for this brand new Saudi-owned supermarket in southern Beirut.
But when Israel's bombing campaign began, refugees suddenly flooded the grocery store. And now, after more than two weeks, hundreds of families are still living in the underground parking lot of the shopping center.
They sleep on the ground on mats and foam pads spread out in this cavernous space. Each family has claimed one or two parking spots for themselves, carefully placing their bundled belongings within the lines painted on the ground.
Many children seem to be having fun here, some of them taking rides on shopping carts brought down from the supermarket upstairs.
One of the kids, 12-year-old Ali Tokamaz(ph), arrived here with his family after making the dangerous drive from his village in southern Lebanon. It has been repeatedly pounded by Israeli air strikes and artillery, Tokamaz says. He says life is better here.
Mr. ALI TOKAMAZ (Refugee): (Through Translator) You can play. You don't hear the bombing here, and you can play, where there you can't go outside.
WATSON: Over time, a subterranean society has developed here. Doctors established a medical clinic which dispenses medicine at one end of the garage, while aid workers push shopping carts around twice a day, distributing meals in plastic bags to each of the families.
At the height of the bombing campaign, rescue workers couldn't spare ambulances to help some of the refugees here. Femi Ali(ph), the general manager of the supermarket, says a nurse was called in to assist pregnant women went into labor in the garage.
Mr. FEMI ALI (Supermarket Owner): She delivered two babies and we had to give them some of the hygiene things and the diapers until they move them out.
WATSON: Those newborns are gone now, but another baby, 28-day-old Zanep(ph), has spent most of her life underground.
Her mother moved here two weeks ago. Like many here, she swears allegiance to Hassan Nasrullah, the leader of Hezbollah.
Unidentified Woman (Refugee): We support Sayad Hassan. We don't care about anything, even if our houses are destroyed or our lands taken. The important thing is that our men down there, God protects them and they're victorious.
WATSON: Despite defiance from some refugees, others are clearly exhausted by this underground existence.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: Mohammad Najal(ph) watches and cracks bitter jokes as his sister washes dishes in a gutter.
Mr. MOHAMMAD NAJAL: We're cooking here. This is our kitchen here. That's ours.
WATSON: This grey-haired tailor lost both his legs in the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s. This month, an Israeli air strike destroyed his family's apartment in southern Beirut. After living for days underground, not knowing whether it's day or night, Najal says he wants to pack up his family and leave Lebanon once and for all.
Mr. MOHAMMAD NAJAL (Refugee): Why? It's no life. You have child, you have kids, you want to - it's not life. It's a bad life.
WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News. Beirut.
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