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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Toys for Zawter

Perched in the mountains of southern Lebanon overlooking the Litani River is the small town of Zawter.

The tiny village has been ravaged by the recent war, though some towns have more damage and others have less. How do you measure the level of destruction or the real impact of war and violence? Can it (should it) really be assessed in buildings destroyed or bombs detonated?

Cars shake as they drive into Zawter over the shrapnel-pocked road. The school bears the scars of blast marks and shattered windows, though the walls are intact. At least the structure of the building has survived. This feels like a relief. This is what qualifies as ‘good news’ in southern Lebanon.

Other good news, the mine action and recovery teams have come to sweep for cluster bombs.

Zawter is filled with them. They have been marked off but have only been removed along main roads and public places. People are walking freely in the streets now (though not out to tend crops, many of which are beginning to spoil unharvested).

Entire blocks of Zawter are just gone. One block had 22 houses and a center for kids. All gone.

You can still see the wall painted by the children along the base of where the youth center used to stand.

The municipality has offered some space to the people who ran the youth center – two rooms and an outdoor area -- to create a new safe area for kids.

The first time I visited one of the rooms was filled with piles and boxes of the books, desks and chairs they had managed to pull from the rubble. The second room was entirely empty and the open space was empty aside from a few plastic chairs and a UNHCR tarp on the ground.

Armed with the resources of a small group of individuals in Jordan, I have been to Zawter several times with the pleasant mission of helping the youth center create this new space for the town’s youth.

After coordinating logistics and negotiating the purchase of supplies through Maria (from the Jaber Center in Nabatieh) we are able to buy toys, art supplies, books, two computers, desks, shelves, chairs, a slide, a seesaw, a merry-go-round and a sound system for Zawter.

The energy and appreciation from the adults and children alike is heart-warming. There are so many large organizations investing in Lebanon, but some are finding themselves caught up in the political chaos and bureaucracy that is threatening to paralyze the country. . .or push it into chaos.

Without the resources or support of those larger organizations, we were also free of the official restrictions and hoops other programs are caught in. This is the blessing of small programs. And goes to show what a difference just a few motivated people can make. This I try to tell myself time and again.

Driving through the devastated towns, distracted in the bars of downtown Beirut, listening helplessly as another person tells me of the damage inflicted on her home or another loss in his family, I want to believe each little bit counts.

But the little bits could be so much bigger. And they are not adding up to enough. Not fast enough.

The amount of aid money pouring into Lebanon is in many ways impressive, seen by most as a competition for the 'hearts and minds' of the local population. In some ways this is a good thing, but it is problematic for the less notorious areas of Lebanon devastated by the fighting, and for international (especially U.S.-backed) agencies who are forbidden to work with Hezbollah at any level.

The Lebanese government has also been criticized for being slow to implement relief efforts and distribute aid. The politicians quibble over how to reform the government or who should distribute aid or how to leverage the rebuilding to win support from the people. But as the debate goes on, winter is creeping in and countless broken homes, physically and emotionally, are left to face the rains and the cold alone.


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