Reporting on Lebanon’s Dispossessed

The Los Angeles Times brings us an evocative story about the realities for civilians on the ground in Lebanon.

With the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah now in its eighth day, the refugee situation in Lebanon continues to worsen. Yesterday, the United Nations estimated that 500,000 Lebanese have now been forced to flee their homes.

Today, the Los Angeles Times responded with a deftly written story that evocatively described the refugees’ plight.

“The frazzled refugees who have flooded Beirut are struggling to find food, water and medicine. They sleep chockablock in city parks, abandoned basements and sweltering schools in the capital,” wrote the Times’ Megan K. Stack, whose story was atop the newspaper’s Web site this morning. “Traumatized and disoriented, many of them stagger in from the country’s south or Beirut’s southern suburbs. They are safer here in the capital, but they are also living without clean drinking water, showers or a change of clothes.”

“Across the city,” Stack added, “vignettes of despair play out against a backdrop of playgrounds, blackboards and lunchrooms”:

As the afternoon heat presses down, the sour stench of sweaty skin, soiled diapers and dirty clothes fills the classrooms. Babies wail, children scream, adults snap at one another and weep.

An old man and his grandchildren arrived at a crammed schoolhouse near central Beirut with injuries suffered in the air raids, but there was no doctor. An old woman fainted; an ambulance was summoned but it never came. There were no ambulances left to come. …

The country has fallen so deep into chaos that it’s almost impossible to know the extent of the humanitarian troubles. Entire neighborhoods have been drained of their residents.

Isolated by bombings and blockades, reported the Times, “Lebanon has seen its food and medical supplies dwindle to dangerously low levels.” Meantime, Stack reports, it is Hezbollah, not the government, that is running many of the shelters where largely poor and working-class Lebanese are taking refuge. (A separate Times story today focused on the Lebanese and other foreigners now pouring into Syria, many of whom are affluent.)

Stack’s story ended with the words of an 11-year-old girl who had spent earlier nights of the Israeli bombardment sleeping in an alleyway alongside her family’s home south of Beirut: “I thought we were going to die,” she said. “It was like thunder, but stronger.”

While the Times was the lone major American paper to report the U.N. estimate today, the Christian Science Monitor published a striking story from the southern port of Tyre, where a new causeway remains “the only lifeline connecting the south to the rest of the country.”

Correspondent Nicholas Blanford’s story began with a man named Yussef Jaafar scrambling over the rubble of his aunt’s home, where beneath a “tangle of concrete, twisted steel rods, and thick gray dust,” lay the remains of his aunt and four other relatives.

“According to eyewitness accounts from survivors interviewed by the Monitor, Israel is striking homes, schools, town centers, using bombs that obliterate entire buildings,” Blanford reported. “Israel is targeting the region because it is a Hezbollah stronghold and the base for rocket attacks on northern Israel.”

Meantime, several more examples of solid refugee coverage have been produced by other major papers over the past few days, including an insightful piece from the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid yesterday.

It’s important to remember that civilians are the ones bearing the brunt of the pain and hardship on the ground in Lebanon. And it’s encouraging that such coverage hasn’t been drowned out by more abstract stories about the overarching military and political narratives that are being acted out in a seemingly disintegrating Middle East.

The number of people forced from their homes is growing at a rapid clip — and their stories will deserve even more attention from journalists in the days ahead.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.