Red Cross volunteers in Lebanon: from dusk to dawn - a journey of misery

Published: 31 July 2006 0:00 CET

Ayad el-Mounzer, Lebanese Red Cross

Since hostilities began in Lebanon, some two weeks ago, more than 5,000 Lebanese Red Cross (LRC), volunteers and staff, working under increasingly dangerous and life-threatening situations, continue to evacuate the wounded, the sick and distribute essential relief and medicines to displaced families, sometimes at the peril of their life, especially in the south of the country.

Lebanese Red Cross paramedics are providing the only ambulance service in the country to transport patients from the hardest-hit areas near the Israeli border to Tyre, and from there, to safer cities such as Beirut. It is one of the few organizations able to evacuate war wounded and civilians under fire.

The director of the Emergency Medical Service Teams, Georges Kettaneh, explains that the Lebanese Red Cross is on 24-hour alert. It is coordinating its action with the Ministry of Health and the High Relief commission. With bridges and roads heavily damaged, it is particularly difficult for the Red Cross teams to try and reach villages in the south, isolated by the fighting, where thousands of people are trapped, with little or no food or water. This is also delaying the evacuation of people, transportation of the wounded and the delivery of medicines.

In the nearly 3,000 first aid and rescue missions they have carried out to date, some 2,400 volunteers have transported more than 2,200 people, nearly 500 wounded to hospital as well as nearly 100 bodies. In addition, about 2,000 volunteers are assisting more than 43,000 sick and displaced people. Georges Kettaneh underlines the extreme difficulties they face in accessing isolated people or those living in areas under fire.

Even in regions where the situation is most dangerous, Red Cross volunteers are present in the First Aid Stations to respond to the emergency calls. Between dusk and dawn, their life becomes a journey full of misery as they sit waiting to hear the echo of bombs, ready to receive the emergency calls, and to pull people from under the rubble and the clouds of smoke.

When Walid volunteered in the Red Cross three years ago, he never thought that his mission would go beyond delivering first aid to elderly people, victims of heart attacks. He believed, until very recently, that the hardest and most painful situation that he might encounter might be to rescue someone from an accident or to extract a body trapped under a car.

He never imagined that his life would be in danger to rescue others. And he never imagined that he would, one day, see so many injured and dead people, buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings in streets which seem to be in a different world, that look like “hell on earth”.

Walid is not the only volunteer who never expected that volunteering in the Red Cross would put his life in danger. He is one of hundreds of volunteers, working together like bees in a hive, non-stop for more than 15 days. Some of them volunteered recently, after the beginning of the hostilities, in spite of the fact they knew that the situation was very difficult and dangerous.

Other volunteers have been with the Red Cross for much longer. Abdallah, a first aid worker since 1992, says that he became stronger after seeing so many people die. He explains that, although the scenes are painful, the hard days he is going through will not stop him from helping the victims. As he remembers a dangerous situation he and his colleagues faced recently, he says: “I wonder now what could have happened to me when I rescued a wounded person near the oil tanks in the airport after they were bombed.” He adds: “I don’t know why I was not wounded and was able to rescue the other person.”

On several occasions, Lebanese Red Cross ambulances have been hit or suffered near misses from artillery fire. The LRC reported five security incidents in recent days. The latest one occurred in the evening of July 23, in Cana, a village in southern Lebanon. As first aid workers were transferring patients from one ambulance to another, the two vehicles were hit, although both were clearly marked with the Red Cross emblem and distinctive flashing lights. Nine people, including six Red Cross workers, were wounded.

A first aid station in Tebnine also suffered an indirect hit, on July 25. First aid workers were injured and ambulances damaged. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has raised this issue with the Israeli authorities and urged them to take measures to avoid such incidents. The LRC has 42 ambulance stations all over Lebanon and an aging fleet of 200 ambulances. It also has a country-wide network of 24 primary health care clinics, 24 dispensaries, eight mobile clinics and nine blood banks, which are currently open 24 hours a day due to the emergency situation.