Bombed-out roads, devastation greet Lebanese returnees

Bombed-out roads and traffic jams slowed the delivery of humanitarian relief to south Lebanon after Monday’s cease-fire, and many aid workers were stuck on roads alongside the refugees they were trying to help.

Bridges and roads throughout Lebanon were bombed over the monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah, and on Monday civil defense workers constructed a makeshift bridge over the Litani River using mud and stones.

The United Nations sent 24 trucks from Sidon across the Litani River to Tyre, carrying food, water and medical supplies on a trip that would normally take 45 minutes. It took more than five hours Monday, said Astrid van Genderen Stort, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Lebanon.

“All the convoys had been stuck for days waiting for (Israeli) clearance, but now I don’t know if they’ll get through the crowds of people heading south,” she said. “It’s not easy to get through — the roads are bombed and there aren’t many others you can take.”

The U.N. also sent five teams out on roads around Beirut to hand out water and blankets and assess the needs of people stuck in traffic.

“People are extremely happy to go home, but they don’t know if they’ll see their houses and don’t know if they’ll eat tonight,” Van Genderen Stort said.

The U.N. was setting up an office and warehouse for relief supplies in Sidon on Monday, and hoped to do the same in Tyre within 48 hours, she said.

Israel said a curfew on roads throughout south Lebanon remained in effect, but the U.N. and other groups did not abide by it.

“With the cease-fire in place, there can no longer be any no-go areas in Lebanon,” said David Shearer, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon. “As a precautionary measure during the transition period, we will continue to notify both sides of our movements.”

Before the cease-fire, aid groups endured what a U.N. statement called a “lengthy and complicated process” to get clearance from Israel to enter parts of the war zone. “This process, which was regarded by the humanitarian community as a major impediment to relief efforts, will now be abandoned,” Monday’s statement said.

It was the first time aid workers reached many villages along the Israel-Lebanon border, an area hardest hit by Israeli airstrikes and ground fighting during Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas.

The Lebanese Red Cross reached Aitaroun, Bint Jbail and Ainata — all within three miles of Israel’s northern border — by Monday afternoon, but was unable to enter the center of the villages because of rubble in the roads, assistance director Mohammed Makki said. Workers were waiting for bulldozers to clear paths, he said.

The international aid group Mercy Corps on Monday made its third trip to Nabatiyeh, about seven miles from the Israeli border, distributing 25,000 canned food items.

“We’re seeing too rapid of a stream of people returning, and we just can’t meet all their needs,” spokeswoman Cassandra Nelson said.

“We’re optimistic and excited to see a positive spirit of returning,” she said. “But there could unfortunately be a lot more suffering if aid agencies can’t get to the population to feed them and also focus on critical infrastructure problems.”

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