BEIRUT, Lebanon—While its fighters battle Israeli forces in the hills of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's relief workers in the capital are fighting on a different front: in sweltering kitchens, on soccer fields and in makeshift clinics.
Known in the West mostly for suicide bombings and kidnappings, Hezbollah has emerged as the largest relief provider in war-ravaged Lebanon. Its efforts dwarf those of the government and international aid agencies, and they're cementing its role as Lebanon's leading social-welfare organization.
The militant group's vast social services wing is spending $500,000 a day to provide food, shelter, medicine and security in Beirut for 155,000 people displaced by the fighting with Israel, according to Hezbollah officials, who provided refugee rosters and intricate spreadsheets to document their work.
Workers for other aid organizations warn that those figures could be exaggerated, but they don't dispute that the group's coffers are deep and its relief programs effective.
With many Western aid agencies frozen in Beirut because of security restrictions or because their governments bar them from working alongside what's considered a terrorist organization, Hezbollah appears to many refugees as their sole provider. Even more than its battlefield success, that image is crucial to Hezbollah's post-combat staying power as it struggles to keep its promises to thousands of supporters who lost children, homes and jobs in a conflict triggered by the group's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.
"This is the second war with Israel, and it's the toughest," said Abbas Dibaja, who runs Hezbollah's central kitchen, which prepares 8,000 hot meals for refugees every day. "We have to make sure what Israel says about our supporters turning against us isn't true. We have to stand behind our people and make sure they don't suffer even a single day."
Dibaja said his kitchen opened on the second day of the fighting, when shop owners cleared out their wares and donated the space to Bushra, one of Hezbollah's many charities. Wedged into a crowded alley in a predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood, the operation includes an office where menus are planned, a room where enormous vats of rice are prepared and a cavernous, steaming kitchen and pantry in the basement.
Abu Fadhil Hammoud, 43, was rejected as a fighter because of his age. Now, he said with a laugh, his weapons are onions and potatoes. This week, he joined a dozen other volunteers for a shift in the underground kitchen. They gathered on each side of a long table, working as if on a factory assembly line to prepare meal after meal: dollop of rice, pile of filleted fish, spoonful of lentils, all tucked into a plastic bag tied neatly at the top. Large flatbed trucks waited outside to deliver the meals to 116 Hezbollah-supervised schools crammed with displaced families.
"I feel my help here is exactly the same as the fighters on the border," Hammoud said, sweat streaming down his face and soaking through his T-shirt. "I wasn't qualified to fight the Israelis there, so I fight them here."
While most international aid agencies in Lebanon are still assessing the country's needs, Hezbollah's long-standing welfare programs have allowed it to respond quickly, especially in its besieged stronghold in the capital's southern suburbs. In the first days of the conflict, Hezbollah relief officials said, they divided Beirut into 13 sectors, each with a coordinator for schools-turned-camps as well as a monitor to reach out to the thousands of displaced people staying with families.
Those coordinators, in turn, oversee a web of volunteers trained in services such as nutrition, hygiene, first aid, counseling and crime prevention. Together, they tally the number of families, the ages of their children, their villages of origin and any specific medical needs, from insulin to wheelchairs. The result is an assistance program that impresses even international aid workers wary of Hezbollah's message.
Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the Lebanon operations of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, sent a team of her relief workers to examine Hezbollah-run centers. They found a highly sophisticated emergency response—and attention to politics.
"They were super well organized," Van Genderen Stort said. "The centers were run properly, with enthusiastic volunteers. But there were people going around with little buttons, little flags."
At two Hezbollah-run relief centers, a reporter saw several posters of the militant group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and slogans such as "Victory is coming, God willing!" At one school, a frame-by-frame photo montage of a Hezbollah missile striking an Israeli warship was plastered across a pillar in a courtyard where children played.
Without exception, families interviewed at the centers expressed support for Hezbollah and said they were willing to endure the hardship of displacement for a group they view as standing up for Lebanon's long-neglected Shiites. However, when a reporter asked Hezbollah's stern-faced, radio-wielding minders for space to interview the families in private, the officials abruptly ended the visit.
Such tight control over displaced families is raising concern among some aid workers, who resent a party to the conflict playing a major role in relief efforts. They worry that families that don't support Hezbollah's militancy will be denied aid or that relief centers will turn into recruiting stations.
"Not only can it lead to discrimination, it can lead to serious tensions between refugees and host communities, and refugees among themselves," said Kristele Younes, an aid worker in Beirut for the Washington-based Refugees International. "We don't want to see refugees used by political parties to further their own agendas in Lebanon. Aid should remain independent and neutral."
With Hezbollah's presence looming over the relief landscape, some of the United States' best-known aid agencies are forced to tread gingerly around federal laws banning Americans from supporting a terrorist group. Unable to deliver aid directly to Hezbollah charities, Western agencies must deliver supplies through one of the dozens of Lebanese agencies that are helping with relief.
Many foreign aid workers said Hezbollah's shadowy nature made it hard to tell whether the bearded sentries receiving aid outside schools were militants or not. Fearful of breaking laws, foreign workers don't ask and the Lebanese guards don't tell.
As the fighting appears headed into its second month and thousands more are displaced every day, even Hezbollah officials are beginning to wonder how much longer they can maintain their relief effort.
Abbas Zahreddin, Hezbollah's social services director for Beirut, reviewed reports this week that showed refugees complaining about the lack of shower facilities and items for women such as feminine hygiene products and clean head scarves. Within minutes, Zahreddin was on the phone arranging for 225 refugees a day to be bused to deserted beach resorts with rows of unused showers. He dispatched a "sisters team" of female Hezbollah volunteers to address the needs of displaced women.
He swatted aside questions about Hezbollah's militancy seeping into its relief work. He was more concerned about the delivery of 41,000 foam mattresses.
"This is our people, this is our resistance and what our relief workers are doing is exactly half the battle," Zahreddin said. "It's our duty to show that when the whole world leaves and stops asking about them, Hezbollah will still be here."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map