Lebanese Red Cross: emerging stronger from hostilities

Published: 22 November 2006 0:00 CET

The Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) has been, since 1995 and by governmental mandate, the most important provider of first aid and medical ambulance services in the country. During the month-long hostilities which devastated Lebanon between mid-July and mid-August, it faced its biggest challenge ever: responding to the emergency needs of a population of nearly four million people, of whom nearly 800,000 fled to other parts of Lebanon and thus became internally displaced. Nearly 200,000 people fled to Syria.

Some 5,000 LRC volunteers and all the staff were immediately mobilized. They delivered key services in emergency medical help, first aid, rescue and evacuation, primary health care, relief distribution, and blood banks with extraordinary courage and often, risking their own lives to do so.

Because of the protection the Red Cross emblem provides under the Geneva Conventions to ambulance and medical crews, volunteers were also assigned the task of evacuating the dead –a first for the Lebanese Red Cross – since most government or civil society organizations were unable to access the bombed zones. It was difficult to send relief items and medical supplies, notably to the south and the Baka’a valley in the east, and especially without all-terrain vehicles.

In addition, several ambulances were hit by Israeli shelling and one Lebanese Red Cross volunteer was killed while trying to evacuate injured people.

After the conflict ended, efforts turned to reconstruction and towards strengthening the capacities and resources of the Lebanese Red Cross. Its strengths and weaknesses were assessed, and two major sectors were identified as needing support: vehicles as well as warehousing and logistics. Through its appeal, the International Federation is providing essential support in both areas.

During the hostilities, the LRC mobilized 210 vehicles from its ageing ambulance fleet. Most were old and the logistical problems posed by destroyed roads and bridges were massive. The Lebanese Red Cross asked for emergency assistance and for vehicles. Ambulances and trucks were quickly provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Federation and a number of National Societies, including the Qatar and Kuwait Red Crescent Societies.

Donations of vehicles continued after the cessation of hostilities. The Qatar Red Crescent alone donated 24 vehicles in October, including all-terrain vehicles and ambulances, the Saudi Red Crescent donated five ambulances and other vehicles (one for the youth section), and the Kuwait Red Crescent provided eight additional vehicles. As a result, the Lebanese Red Cross was able to renew part of its fleet and replace vehicles damaged during the conflict.

“The population of Lebanon depends on the Lebanese Red Cross to deliver effective and professional emergency medical services. The Red Cross covers 80 per cent of all the ambulance missions in Lebanon, on average 450 missions per day,” notes Knut Kaspersen, the International Federation’s head of delegation in Beirut. “It is thus important for the Federation to focus its assistance where it is most needed… a modern and well-maintained fleet is clearly essential.”

As tonnes of emergency relief arrived during the fighting, the Lebanese Red Cross realized its warehouse capacity was insufficient to store relief assistance, medical items, vehicles and other goods.

Zoran Curkovski, Federation logistics delegate in Beirut, says storage space was filled well beyond capacity. “The Lebanese Red Cross received more than 1,000 metric tonnes of relief goods during July and August, with a warehousing capacity of only 60 square metres,” he says.

“In addition to assisting the Lebanese Red Cross in finding an appropriate warehouse, we also worked on establishing logistics management systems, procedures and training.” Several private sector companies also provided free warehousing and the Qatar Red Crescent agreed to provide fuel for six months as part of the ICRC appeal.

As a result of these assessments, the decision was taken to improve the logistical capacity of the Lebanese Red Cross, especially since continuing tensions in the region point to the importance of making sure a contingency plan is in place to enable the LRC to respond adequately to any future emergencies.

Effective logistics services are crucial to the ability of the LRC to handle the influx of relief goods, their storage and distribution, as well as ensure the management of its fleet, which includes ambulances, trucks, mini-buses and cars.

The International Federation, through the emergency appeal it launched on behalf of the Lebanese Red Cross in July 2006, and revised in August, is supporting activities to develop systems and procedures to ensure proper stock, warehouse and fleet management as well as the complete renewal of the LRC fleet.

“The Federation’s support for the Lebanese Red Cross has always focused on capacity building and our long-term work really paid off during the hostilities,” says Knut Kaspersen. “We are currently providing much-needed vehicles and logistics training to the Lebanese Red Cross and continuing this work is necessary to be prepared for possible future crises.”

In addition, current programmes include training for volunteers and staff in first aid and psychological support in order to help displaced families, as well as stress management for LRC volunteers and staff.

Capacity building measures also encompass strengthening social and health services, information and communications. Today, more than 1,000 Lebanese Red Cross youth volunteers continue to distribute relief assistance to those displaced families who still have no home of their own or means of subsistence.

Portrait of a volunteer

A few hours before the UN declared the cessation of hostilities in Lebanon on 13 August, 2006, Hussein Salam, 25, a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer since 2001 and a member of one of its medical teams, decided to go home - a block away. He and 34 other volunteers had spent 35 days at Al-Mreijeh Emergency centre - 104, a small apartment where they slept, cooked, ate, and from where they were sent out to save lives and pull dead bodies out of the rubble.

This busy centre is located in the southern outskirt of Beirut (population: approximately 750,000), just two blocks from Hizbullah’s headquarters, where houses were levelled by Israeli bombing. Hussein’s house was the last one on that block. Expecting the worst when hostilities began, his family had fled to the mountains above Beirut and he was busy carrying out Red Cross emergency missions.

Hussein decided to go home to wash his clothes. Five stories out of the seven-story building had disappeared. His home was also gone.

“I was happy that my family was safe. The apartment can always be rebuilt,” said Hussein with a faint smile on his baby-face. “I called my family and explained what happened.” Carrying his clothes in a bag, Hussein went back to Centre 104 and kept on providing assistance to victims in the southern suburbs of Beirut for a month. His family returned to Beirut later to rent another apartment and start rebuilding.