Lebanese head home

Kai Ryssdal Aug 14, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Over in the Middle East it was the first day without significant violence in more than a month. There were some skirmishes here and there. But for the most part no bombs fell and no rockets were fired. In Lebanon that meant almost a million refugees could start going home. And aid convoys could get through unmolested. Ben Gilbert’s been covering the story for us in Beirut. Ben, while you were out today, did you see any kind of relief operations?

BEN GILBERT: I didn’t necessarily see any aid convoys on their way south, or even on their way to the southern suburbs. Mostly what I saw was a lot of traffic. The U.N. told me that their biggest problem today was not warfare, was not battles between Hezbollah or Israel, it was not airstrikes, it was traffic. At one checkpoint going south of Beirut, just on one road along the coast, there were 6,000 cars that passed through that checkpoint in one hour. And so the U.N. sent two convoys down that same road. And they had some assistance from the Lebanese military and the internal security forces, but this trip down to Tyre, which is the port city that’s the closest to Israel and that has been cut off for the last five days essentially use to take about one hour. And now it takes five or six for your normal civilian. And these U.N. trucks that made it down there today made it in about two hours.

RYSSDAL: Ben, assuming people can fight the traffic and get home, assuming they can find their apartment building or their house still standing, can they go out and buy anything? Israel had a blockade on this country for a long time. Has it been lifted? Are there supplies and food and gas?

GILBERT: There are supplies here. Gas is limited. There’s still rationing going on with gas. A lot of gas stations are closed. Some of the gas stations we saw today in the southern suburbs were devastated from missile attacks. But there’s essentially water trucks driving around. You see them. There’s plenty of food. A lot of Lebanon supplies its own agricultural products, so there’s fresh produce around. There’s eggs. There’s bread. But this is in Beirut, in the south. There are obviously enormous shortages with food and medical supplies. There’s one town in the south that’s just near the border, and the U.N. told me they’ve been trying to get aid supplies down there for the last week or two. And there’s essentially 5,000 to 10,000 people — they estimate, they don’t know how many people are there — but 5,000 to 10,000 people stuck in this village who took refuge there from the fighting who the U.N. hasn’t been able to get to. So, what you’re seeing at the market and at the grocery store, or how much gasoline or food you have, that’s going to be determined by exactly which part of the country you’re in.

RYSSDAL: Is anybody hazarding a guess as to the cost of rebuilding Beirut and Tyre and the rest of Lebanon?

GILBERT: Ten days ago, when I asked an economist that very same question, he was reluctant to guess because so few people have been able to get down on the ground, especially in the south where 70 percent of the fighting has taken place and 70 percent of the damage has taken place. He guessed at that point — and this is a guess — at $7 billion in damage in a country with an economy of about $24 billion. So, nearly a third of the economy will be costs of reconstruction.

Now, there’s probably been twice as many buildings damaged, at least in the southern suburbs here in Beirut. And just now people are getting down south to be able see if their buildings are still standing. I think the number could be quite a bit higher than that.

RYSSDAL: Ben Gilbert in Beirut, Lebanon, for us. Thank you, Ben.

GILBERT: Thanks a lot.

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