'One in four Lebanese are now refugees... we can't cope'

THEY moved in cars and on tractors, waving white pieces of cloth along high mountain roads pocked with craters from bombing and shelling. Mortar fire boomed a constant beat from the next ridge, in Israel.

The refugees were part of the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fleeing violence in the southern part of their country, creating a humanitarian crisis their government says is now bigger than it can handle.

The UN estimates that 800,000 Lebanese have been displaced, a huge number for a country of 3.5 million.

"The scale of the problem is of an unbelievable proportion," said Sami Haddad, the Lebanese minister of economy.

"We have between 20% and 25% of our population that is turned into refugees. What government can cope with that?"

There is a nationwide problem of buildings and public works. The Lebanese school system is filled with people seeking shelter and, with the vast scale of the destruction, even if the war stopped now the country would still face a housing shortage in the light of the 100,000 to 200,000 people whose homes have been levelled.

But while hundreds of thousands are sleeping in schools, parks, municipal buildings and relatives' houses, the plight of civilians who have stayed in the south - either out of fear or an inability to leave - is the worst of all. People there are stranded without food, power and in some towns, clean water.

In Rmeish, a Christian town less than a mile from the Israeli border, refugees living in garages, storefronts, churches and schools beg for food, water and medicine.

"Look, this is our water," shouted Aiteshab Jawad, a mother in a green hijab, holding up a container of brownish fluid. "Our children are vomiting. Help us!"

Elie Hajj, a man who identified himself as a member of the local government, said that about 6,000 townspeople were stranded there, with 7,000 more villagers who had come to the town, thinking it would be safe because it is largely Christian.

The flight has picked up as the fighting has intensified. In Tyre, the city that is the first relatively safe stop after an extremely dangerous route along the border, about 1,000 refugees spilled into town on Friday alone.

Refugees are also gathering in Sidon, another coastal city north of Tyre. The park outside the local government building was filling, said Muhammad Chamseddine, who had travelled through after taking his family north early on Friday morning.

On his two-hour drive, he saw several large convoys of refugees, all with white flags fluttering from windows.

One had stopped in a grove of trees after having reached a relatively safe area. He asked the people where they were going. They said they did not know. "People seemed dazed," he said.

Some of the most desperate cases were the elderly and children. Inside a church in the village of Tijali, people milled around, restless and anxious. A woman walked up holding a paper cup full of water, and pointed to her baby. "Water, I'm giving her water," she said. "There's no milk."

In a nearby garage, a large extended family sat on plastic chairs, waiting for salvation.

An old man in a white crocheted cap lay on a mat under a ceiling hung with drying tobacco leaves. He needed medicine but his family had no car and could not afford the $800 taxi fare to Beirut.

Many people were still reeling from the shock of losing loved ones in the violence. Anaya Bezzeh, a woman in her 40s, sat crumpled on a plastic lawn chair in the yard of the Tyre Rest House - a hotel that has been descended on by refugees. Her husband had died, and she escaped with her children two days ago from Bint Jbeil, the town of the heaviest fighting.

In Rmeish, people milled around and waited. Tufik Deeb, a 77-year-old Rmeish resident, said he had been surviving on yoghurt and rice for more than a week.

In the centre of town, a family with four small children waited inside an old Mercedes.

They wanted to join the convoy that was leaving to Tyre, but they had no petrol. Still, they sat patiently in the heat of the afternoon, hoping someone would give them the means to reach some sort of safety.

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