“My husband and our eight children were told by the Israelis through loudspeakers to leave Aita Ech Chaab and our homes immediately … my daughter was still barefoot when we raced off in our pick-up,” said Adeeb, who had lived her whole life in the town.
“We stayed 15 days in Rmaich with 55 people in a house, then 15 days in Sidon,” she said. “When we came back to Aita the inside of our house had been [destroyed] … there were bloodstained clothes, our cow was lying dead in the entrance, our fields had been burnt and we found a big missile in the ceiling of our tobacco storage building.”
Adeeb and her family are renting a small house in the Christian town of Rmaich until they are able to return to their home. In the meantime, she and her family shuttle between Rmaich and Aita Ech Chaab, trying to make repairs.
Their experience has been duplicated by thousands of other Lebanese, who returned from places where they sheltered during the fighting only to find that their homes are uninhabitable. They will remain displaced for many months to come - nearer home, but still displaced.
“We cannot live in our house now, like many other families, but at the same time we want to be there to work on it and ensure that we get assistance,” Adeeb said. Her family was initially ignored in distributions carried out in the two towns because of confusion over where they should receive help - a logistical problem that UNHCR monitors are checking throughout the region.
Aita Ech Chaab, which swells from its winter population of 10,000 to 13,000 in summer, was hit on July 12 in the first Israeli air strike on Lebanese soil. The town, on a hill facing Israel, then suffered 20 days of aerial bombing and shelling. On the 21st day, it was surrounded by Israeli troops and a struggle for control of the town began.
“Our people fought back all during the war. The result from all five weeks is a totally destroyed town … 90 percent of our houses are badly or totally destroyed, as are the transformers, water tanks and the pipe network,” said Mohammed Salah, a member of the town municipality.
“Now we face a long road towards recovery and reconstruction. People have come back to see their homes, but not many will be staying during the winter. The winter is coming and time is needed for clearance and reconstruction.”
The road to the Adeeb family home goes through parts of town where the fighting was intense. Narrow streets pass levelled houses and concrete rubble. People walk around their homes, aimlessly moving a rock or a chair or cloth from one side to the other. The edge of town where Israeli bulldozers moved in during the struggle is heaps of sand and flattened homes.
“It is okay, though,” said Salah. “We are being supported and will be helped more, I am sure. Our town will return to normal. We will have to make a new layout of particularly this part of town, as the original streets have disappeared … but we will get there.”
The confidence makes the apocalyptic scene a little less bleak. There seems little resentment that a five-week war nearly wiped Aita off the map. It will be back. “For the past week we have been distributing UNHCR and other relief items to the people who returned to Aita Ech Chaab and the resilience has been commendable,” said Mohammed Ali of Samidoun, a network of non-governmental organisations and volunteers who distribute UNHCR aid.
“As a team we have lived with the people in half-destroyed homes, and been welcomed and invited despite the meagre resources,” said Ali. “People are happy with what they receive as support. Not many people can return and many will be away during winter. For the time being people seem to take things as they come.”
Samidoun, aware of Adeeb’s problem in getting assistance, is acting to ensure no family is left out. “We know of the problem,” said Ali. “Several families from Aita, who live outside the village, are presently falling between the cracks.”
The assistance will keep Adeeb and her family going for now. She is already focused on the future. “For now we just survive day by day, and hope that we will receive support so our Aita house … will be repaired,” she said. “And then we need to go back to the fields, and start working again soon.”