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Christopher Stokes, MSF Director of Operations: Humanitarian Corridor into South Lebanon is a Delusion
July 31, 2006
Contrary to what is suggested by announcements of a humanitarian corridor in Lebanon, aid workers have no real access to the people most in need, and those who want to flee the affected region or seek help have no guarantees that they can do so safely.
Christopher Stokes is head of mission for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Lebanon. For the second time since the crisis began there, he is in Tyre, south Lebanon, where MSF has set up a health center and has launched a mobile clinic. After arriving in a small car with several boxes of drugs, he explains why the humanitarian corridor into the south is far from being a reality.
What is the situation like in southern Lebanon?
It is almost impossible for civilians from heavily hit zones to move, and therefore to reach hospitals. Some families left their houses but remain blocked in the middle of nowhere as the roads were destroyed.
MSF teams came across families who have not received any assistance because roads were bombed or because they ran out of fuel while trying to escape. They cannot go back home and they cannot seek medical care. Others are just too afraid to move at all.
What are the difficulties for MSF as a humanitarian organization?
In conflicts we need to negotiate with both parties the necessary space to get access to civilians, to set up clinics, to distribute aid and to help the population. Today in Lebanon it is impossible to negotiate any safe access to villages caught in the bombardments. This is a huge obstacle for us, but more importantly for our Lebanese colleagues. There are no security guarantees for the Lebanese aid workers as they carry out most of the work in the relief efforts across the south.
Has the announcement of a humanitarian corridor made your job easier?
For many days, the concept of humanitarian corridors has been used to mask the reality: it is impossible to get safe access to the villages in the south. The so-called corridor is a kind of alibi because in effect there is no real access for humanitarian organizations in the south. And the international community is deluding itself, if it believes there is.
In practice, there is hardly any security for vehicles travelling to the south. The few UN convoys that managed to obtain security guarantees from the Israeli authorities deposited their cargos in warehouses before quickly escaping back to Beirut.
This means that we do not have real access to the people most in need. By the same token, people who want to flee the affected region or seek help have no guarantees that they can do so safely, contrary to what is suggested by talk of a humanitarian corridor.
What about getting supplies to Lebanon to begin with?
Even the easiest part of the so-called corridor, from Cyprus to Beirut, is not working properly. MSF has around 140 tonnes of materials piling up in Cyprus, and only limited amounts of supplies are coming through to Beirut. We have had lifesaving drugs blocked there for three days at some point.
How is MSF today organising provision of supplies to the south of Lebanon?
Truck drivers do not want to go to Tyre because of the insecurity. Trucks have been hit by air strikes, as were civilian cars and ambulances. Our teams are forced to use taxis packed with boxes and medical materials to be distributed to hospitals in the south. But this is hardly a solution considering the huge volume of materials we need to send to the affected zones.
There was talk of a 48-hour suspension of air strikes. Has this changed the situation?
We were hoping to make the most of that break to reach people we have not been able to assist. However, as we speak, we know that fighting has continued today. We were supposed to go the town of Bint Jbail today, to deliver medical supplies and check what other assistance is needed. But yet again a bridge was bombed on the road from Saida (Sidon), the supplies arrived hours too late in Tyre and we could only bring them to a point from where a Lebanese ambulance was able to collect them for further transport. So in practice, the suspension of air strikes means little for access to the people trapped in the fighting. And what will happen after the 48-hour deferral of air strikes? Will we be back to the old situation, when it was impossible to get any kind of safe access to the population?