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Thousands of Lebanese refugees now face difficult living conditions

BEIRUT, Lebanon—The living victims of the war in Lebanon—those who've fled the war zones in the south and in Beirut's southern suburbs, and those who've stayed—are facing a humanitarian crisis that's stretching this country to the breaking point.

More than 700,000 people who've left their homes are now confined to schools, mosques, public parks or the crowded apartments of friends and strangers generous enough to offer them shelter.

Bathrooms and kitchens are in short supply in the temporary shelters set up in Beirut and other cities. Hygiene is suspect. Many children are developing scabies and other infections, aid workers say.

Many of the thousands squatting in homes are running out of money, and aid agencies are struggling to find them to deliver mattresses and blankets.

In the south, the few thousand who remain live under siege. The roads out of their villages have either been bombed by Israeli forces or are too dangerous to travel because of battles raging nearby. They can't leave, and humanitarian aid can't reach them.

Water and food are running out in many villages. Relief groups struggle to operate amid battles and a road network that's been destroyed by Israeli air strikes.

Aid convoys won't travel without clearance from the Israeli military, which is slow in coming, if it comes at all. Much of the 500 to 1,000 tons of aid that the United Nations could deliver each day in Lebanon doesn't go anywhere.

Asked about the dimensions of the problem, Khaled Mansour, spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian operation, sounded slightly exasperated: "Major, dire, horrific—I don't know."

Tales of struggle, gathered recently throughout the country, provide a measure of the developing catastrophe and a way of viewing the mass disaster through the plight of its victims.

On a narrow street in Bourj Hammoud, a mostly Armenian neighborhood in north Beirut, Jameelee Abbas Zahr, 56, returned to a building that still bears scars from the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

She went to the Bourj Hammoud stadium on a recent afternoon after hearing that people were handing out food. But she found no help there.

"We haven't gotten even 1,000 Lebanese pounds," she said, a sum equal to about 75 cents. "No one is helping us."

She, her three daughters and their families fled their homes in the southern suburbs of Beirut 20 days ago after Israeli warplanes leveled blocks of buildings. Now they live in a distant relative's small apartment.

Eighteen people live in three rooms. The mattresses are lined up from wall to wall each night and then folded up in the morning. They struggle to eat.

The last of their supplies—some cucumbers, bread, five tomatoes, sugar and half a bottle of oil—is piled in one room. They do their laundry in plastic tubs.

The only thing Zahr took from her home was a black-and-white television, now regularly tuned to the Hezbollah channel, Al Manar. But at least they have a place to stay.

"We have it better than others," said Fatma Roumani, one of Zahr's daughters.

For three weeks, Mariam Mahmoud al Hajj, 39, has lived with her husband and their nine children in the shade of two trees in a Beirut park. About 800 other people are camping out nearby.

They sleep in the heat and wake in the heat, and the days run together. They wash in the sinks of the dirty bathrooms set up for them.

Each morning, Hajj wakes up, washes her children's set of clothes by hand and dries them in a tree. They lost their apartment and everything they owned in Israeli air raids on the southern suburbs.

Meals are provided by aid groups. It's almost always bread and cheese.

Six-year-old Amal Assem, Hajj's youngest daughter, doesn't have lice, but the children nearby do. It's only a matter of time, her mother said.

They have nowhere else to go.

"We wake up and each day is worse than the last," Hajj said. "I don't even have the energy to move from this place to that place." She pointed to a spot less than a foot away.

In the southern village of Shaqra, Hoda Wizani's family spent the first 18 days of the war huddled in a basement, listening to the fighting outside.

They survived, she said, only because Hezbollah fighters from the village dropped in every day to bring them food and information. The day they said that things were about to get a lot more dangerous, the family left.

Now Wizani lives with 38 relatives in a concrete schoolhouse in the port town of Sidon, where a Lebanese charity runs a refugee center. Meals are provided, and there are games for children. Some evenings, the family steps outside for a walk to feel the sea breeze.

Life is peaceful, Wizani said, but everyone misses Shaqra. It was no secret that Hezbollah operated there, and they've read in the newspapers about Israeli attacks on the village.

Wizani, a 25-year-old nurse, wonders whether they still have a place to call home.

"Everything is calm here; we lack nothing," she said. "But we are worried about the future, when this is all over."

Shukrallah Hajj, the avuncular archbishop of the town of Tyre, waited six days for clearance to deliver food and medicine to Dibel. The Christian village, where some 500 people remain, has been virtually isolated since the start of the conflict. But the Israeli military kept denying his convoy safe passage.

Finally, on Saturday morning, Israel gave the go-ahead. Two U.N. armored personnel carriers, three trucks loaded with donated food and three cars of foreign journalists set off from Tyre to Dibel. Hajj was one of the few not wearing body armor, clad instead in a cream-colored cassock, a silver crucifix hanging from his neck.

As the convoy snaked along Lebanon's riskiest road—through rubble-strewn ridges and mountain villages reduced to ghost towns—mortar fire sounded occasionally in the nearby hills.

Just outside Dibel, the cars stopped at a gaping hole, left by an Israeli airstrike.

The archbishop went on foot, and as he walked down Dibel's narrow, sloping road lined with stone houses, families stepped outside to greet him with hugs, bows, and huge smiles.

Then they began listing their needs: more diesel fuel for generators, medicine for heart ailments and diabetes, cough syrup and anti-diarrhea pills for children.

"We haven't been able to go outside the village for a week," said Jeries Zine, a young tobacco farmer who was holding his 1-year-old daughter. "It has been very hard for her. When she hears the bombardment, she hides."

Zine and his wife had run out of fuel, and there was no more milk for their daughter. He'd been unable to pick his tobacco crop, much of which has been plowed under by Israeli tanks.

"We're waiting for the war to finish," Zine said. "We don't care who wins."

On Wednesday, the village was the scene of some of the worst fighting of the war. There was no word on how Zine and his family had fared.

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(Bengali reported from Shaqra and Dibel, Lebanon; Fadel reported from Beirut.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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