Middle East


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, many civilians who'd been trapped by the fighting in southern Lebanon took advantage of the lull in Israeli air strikes to flee. Israel agreed to partly suspend air operations for 48 hours while it carried out an investigation into the killings at Qana. Aid agencies were surprised by the decision and used the opportunity to get relief supplies moving.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Beirut.


For nearly three weeks, workers at the humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps have been packaging food supplies at a makeshift warehouse in downtown Beirut. Large plastic bags are filled with peas, lentils, rice, sugar and other food stuff and loaded into boxes. Each one contains enough food for a family of ten for about a week.

Since the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah began on July 12, Mercy Corps has been dropping the food boxes, as well as hygiene kits, in many areas of Lebanon, but not the south, where the supplies are desperately needed.

Cassandra Nelson, a spokesperson for Mercy Corps, says the organization was planning to head to Marjiu(ph), a small town deep in south Lebanon, tomorrow. Nelson says she was surprised to hear that Israel was partially suspending its aerial bombardment of the area.

Ms. CASSANDRA NELSON (Mercy Corps): I found out over the television that there was this agreement reached and we're waiting for details, although apparently the clock started ticking about 12 hours ago. We are moving forward, we were going to go down on Tuesday anyhow, so it's nice to know that hopefully it will be a bit, it'll be, you know, again, a little bit less risky than we thought it might have been.

NORTHAM: All the other UN and international aid agencies in Beirut were also taken by surprise. Many had been waiting, trying to get into the south, but couldn't because it was simply too dangerous.

With today's news, many of the agencies kicked into high gear, but came up against a wall of logistical challenges. There are now severe gasoline shortages. In Beirut cars waited more than two hours to fill up. Once they do get on the road they face another hurdle, says Amir Sayudi(ph), a spokesman with the UN's World Food Programme.

Mr. AMIR SAYUDI (United Nations World Food Programme): A road that used to take one hour trip is taking five, six hours today. To reach Tyre, it almost took us ten hours. There was a lot of traffic. The roads were destroyed. You have to negotiate and you have to travel at very slow speed. All these problems delays the deliveries.

NORTHAM: Sayudi says they plan to get six convoys loaded with relief supplies on the road tomorrow and every day after that. Great plans, but the UN will not travel to dangerous areas if it has not received a guarantee of safe passage from Israel, says Astrid van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman with the UN's High Commission for Refugees.

Ms. ASTRID VAN GENDEREN STORT (United Nations High Commission for Refugees): It's security. We need officially clearance for everywhere. You cannot go to the south without clearance. To the north, anywhere in the country, we move with a convoy and if it's seen from the air as a convoy, it could be a target, because a convoy could be anything. I mean it could be a convoy of goods, but it could be a convoy of weapons, I mean, in the view of the Israelis.

NORTHAM: Stort says even if the supplies make it to the south, the relief efforts in that area still aren't organized.

Ms. STORT: You arrive there, you don't have enough time to really distribute. You don't have implementing partners on the ground because it's a conflict zone, so you just drop the goods and hope that they arrive to the people in need.

NORTHAM: And that's just getting aid into the south. There are no systems in place to evacuate people who want to get out. Mercy Corps spokesperson Nelson says that's a difficult process.

Ms. NELSON: You need to make sure you can evacuate everyone. You can't go down and take half the people and say, sorry, the rest of you are stuck here, goodbye, good luck. You know, that's just something that's not appropriate.

NORTHAM: Nelson says, even if you could evacuate residents, where would take them? The UN says there are now more than 800,000 people who have been displaced by the fighting. Many are moving around Lebanon trying to find food and shelter.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Beirut.

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