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WFP blog: after the ceasefire

In a special blog first published in the Guardian Unlimited, WFP spokesperson David Orr describes his journey with a UN food aid convoy through conflict-ravaged southern Lebanon.

In a special blog first published in the Guardian Unlimited, WFP spokesperson David Orr describes his journey with a UN food aid convoy through conflict-ravaged southern Lebanon.

Our convoy grinds to a halt. Again. We’d been led to believe this road inland through south Lebanon from the coastal town of Naqoura would be passable.

But there was a huge bomb crater ahead of us. Not only that, but the crater debris had been moved into the road, completely blocking our path. Local people said Israeli soldiers bulldozed the dirt into the road the previous evening.

There was a place on the road where we could turn the trucks around, but there was also an unexploded 120 mm mortar bomb stuck in the tarmac, so this was not much of an option.

Alternate route

It had been over a week since WFP had been able to send a convoy to the south of Lebanon.

Joined by some of the press posse travelling with the convoy – the first UN food haul to the stricken south of Lebanon since the start of the ceasefire the same day – we stood there beside the shell chatting while the convoy leaders discussed an alternative route.

It was hot under the midday sun and suddenly something beside the shell started smoking. We stared stupidly at the smoke, then at one another. Someone laughed nervously. Just some explosive residue on the tarmac, suggested one of the French soldiers from our UN escort.

It was established that a track through the surrounding olive groves would take us around the bomb crater and back onto the road. Our 15 trucks were soon off again, bumping their way towards their destination.

Supplies

We were carrying more than 100 tonnes of supplies – wheat flour, bread, tinned meat, oil and bottled water – to a village called Rmeich. It had been over a week since the World Food Programme – the UN agency responsible for transporting all relief supplies for the UN – had been able to send a convoy to the south of Lebanon.

Right up to the moment we left Sidon that morning, we could hear explosions detonating in the hills around the town: Israeli aircraft on what we hoped was a final bombing sortie.

Civilian business

Posters of bearded Hizbollah leaders lined our route, but there was no sign of the fighters themselves. There was, however, a manned tank – with little doubt Israeli -- perched on a hillside to the left, and another on the other side of the road, right on the Blue Line, the border between the two countries.

As we drove up an incline, we could see the settlements, roads and cars of Israel – people in another country going about their ordinary civilian business on the first day of the cessation of hostilities.

Former lives

We drove through Aaita ech Chaab – or what, in happier times, had been the village of Aaita ech Chaab. After a month of shelling, however, there was little left but shattered buildings, twisted metal and broken glass. The first returnees picked through the ruins of their homes while others just stood around, staring at the wreckage of their former lives.

We finally reached the border village of Rmeich and backed our trucks up to the building where the supplies were to be stored prior to distribution by the municipal authorities and the Lebanese Red Cross. The village seemed more or less intact and I asked a local man why this was so. “It’s because we’re mostly Christians,” he said.

Neighbours

The aid would be shared out between the people of Rmeich and three nearby villages, some of whose Muslim inhabitants had sought refuge among their Christian neighbours as the bombs rained down upon them. There had been no electricity for weeks and people told us they had had to wash in – and occasionally drink – water from stagnant pools. Their greatest need, they said, was for bread, clean water and fuel for generators.

On our return journey that evening, one of the trucks broke down and, as we waited by the roadside, I got talking to a middle aged man in the village of Yarine. Some of the houses around us had been flattened in the shelling.

“Today is the first time I’ve been home in three weeks,” he said. It turned out he was a local schoolteacher. I asked him if he was now home for good. He thought a while.

“Maybe,” he said. “I’ll see how things go with the Lebanese army and the international UN force. If they stay and everything is quiet, then it’ll be alright.”

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