SIDON, Lebanon – Residents of south Lebanon’s biggest city and the refugees who have joined them are staying put despite warnings from Israel that it plans to bomb "Hezbollah rocket launching sites" in Sidon, according to the city’s mayor.
Sidon’s normal population of 125,000 has swelled as more than 100,000 refugees have fled here from war zones farther south.
"People were definitely worried, but nobody left the city," Mayor Abdul Rahman Bizri said in an interview.
Bizri said that on Saturday, Israel dropped flyers nearby, calling on the people in the province to leave because it wanted to target Hezbollah rocket launching sites there. Bizri, however, denied that Hezbollah were in the area.
"We don’t have any Hezbollah bases in Sidon," he said. "We don’t have any launching pads for rockets." He added: "This is a city where everybody feels more or less at home. Whoever wants to stay can stay, and we’re staying."
Many of Sidon’s newcomers say they do not have much choice. Salima Salman fled to Sidon from her home in the southern city Qana in mid-July with only the clothes she was wearing. Now she, her husband, and their two teenage children sleep every night in a classroom with 37 other people at Sidon’s Lebanese Kuwaiti Elementary School, which been turned into a refugee center.
"It’s either return to our village or stay here," Salman said. "There’s no other option. We either die here or return to our village."
Despite a widespread feeling of fatalism, many refugees here say they are thankful for the help they are receiving in Sidon.
Refugees started coming here the day after Israelis began bombing southern Lebanon in retaliation for the seizure of two of their soldiers by the Lebanese Hezbollah. With help from non-governmental organizations, the city has been working to identify the growing number of refugees and to place them in 88 refugee centers.
Even a chic villa belonging to the sister of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was from Sidon, has been transformed into a mass kitchen. Volunteers there cook daily meals such as rice, chicken, and vegetables, and distribute them to the refugees.
All of these demands, however, have been putting a strain on the city’s resources.
"To have more than 100,000 people come here and almost double our population practically overnight has added an extra stress on our infrastructure, especially on the water services and electricity," Bizri said.
He said the showers and sewage systems in the makeshift refugee centers do not have the capacity to serve so many people. And although Sidon’s infrastructure has not been damaged much in this conflict, Israeli forces have destroyed the bridges connecting the city with other parts of Lebanon, making the delivery of supplies difficult.
Sidon’s hospitals are also struggling with the influx of refugee patients.
"We’re hanging on, we’re exhausted," said Dr. Khalil Hamad, a 27-year-old medical resident at the city’s largest hospital, Hammoud Hospital. "We’re seeing four times as many patients as usual."
The hospital has treated 350 people who were injured in the fighting farther south, as well as many refugees with usual illnesses. Hamad said the hospital has enough medicine now, but the situation could get much worse if the conflict continues.
"Our medicine can last two to three weeks but not more," he said. "We’re also going to have a problem with power in a few days because we have only seven days of power left."
Other challenges are more psychological than logistical. Ghareiba Solaiman, a 54-year-old housewife who fled from Qana, says many here feel Western countries could have stopped this conflict much sooner by demanding an immediate cease-fire.
"I stayed in Qana through two other conflicts before," she said. "But this time we couldn’t stay there. It was unbearable."
"We would like the Western countries to sympathize with us and deal with us as we are: we are just human beings," she added.
Most of the refugees here are Shia Muslim, as are the Hezbollah. In contrast, about 90 percent of Sidon’s population is Sunni Muslim; the other 10 percent are Shia and Christian.
Sidon’s mayor says his city has been known for its religious tolerance in a country that was devastated by a civil war from 1975 to 1990.
"We try to consider Sidon as a melting pot, in a way that all ideologies are accepted," Bizri said. "So this is why everyone feels relaxed and why everyone wants to stay in the city."
But some Sidon inhabitants say they feel caught in the middle of a conflict that should never have begun.
Twenty-three-year-old Ayman Bouz, who manages the refugee center at the Lebanese Kuwaiti School, says some local residents are angry with both Hezbollah and the Israelis.
"I’m angry at Hezbollah, but of course I’m angrier at Israel because its response has been extremely disproportionate," he said. "But we also have to know that we have internal problems that we should solve."