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Doctors Without Borders Undaunted in Lebanon

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In newspapers today, a photo of a desperate situation in southern Lebanon. The image shows cartons being handed down a human chain of workers, standing knee-deep in the waters of the Litani River, just north of the city of Tyre. The boxes contained medical supplies that the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders was bringing to hospitals and clinics in the city.

A makeshift bridge spanning the Litani River was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike over the weekend. It was the last major crossing point over the river. Christopher Stokes is director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. He was at the river crossing yesterday.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER STOKES (Doctors Without Borders): We had not other choice but to improvise this kind of human chain and bring the boxes across. So we brought over four and a half tons of medical supplies, essentially surgical equipment, by hand over the river. Then they were carried over to the trucks on the other side and they were brought into Tyre where they were then used in the hospitals there. And then the NSF medical structure was established south of the Litani.

BLOCK: How long did it take to get four and a half tons of boxes of supplies passed hand to hand across that river?

Mr. STOKES: It took us two hours and people locally helped us and gave us a big hand on that. We required it (unintelligible), we notified Israel and we were told that the road was closed to NSF and we had no security or guarantees, basically, against airstrikes. And this has been quite problematic for us, because it's put us in a very difficult position of choosing whether we take the risk or not.

BLOCK: At the medical clinics that you do have set up in southern Lebanon, what are you hearing from your staff there about the patients they're seeing, the kinds of injuries they're seeing?

Mr. STOKES: It's a mixed picture. And the major problem isn't really with the wounded. There is a major problem for ordinary pathologies, if you've got diabetes, if you need dialysis, for example - remember, this is quite a developed country, so you've got quite an aged population as well, with the associated pathologies. And they cannot reach any emergency medical care, or they cannot receive their normal medical treatment. The pharmacies aren't supplied any more. They're doctors have, they're not in a position to see their doctors, etcetera. And we've been seeing a lot of that, actually.

BLOCK: Now, are the clinics also seeing people wounded as a result of the fighting?

Mr. STOKES: Most of the wounded have been treated by the Lebanese who, especially the surgeons and the doctors working in the big hospitals, have stayed there. So those hospitals are still functioning, although in difficult circumstances. They're running out of fuel and medical supplies.

BLOCK: Mr. Stokes, would there be any way of knowing whether the people that you're treating would be, themselves, Hezbollah?

Mr. STOKES: I think a lot of the people we're seeing are relatively old. We're seeing a lot of women and children. We would consider them to be civilians. That doesn't mean that they have political sympathies from side or another, I imagine. And of course we do sometimes see adult males, combat age. But actually most of the people we're seeing are more the women and children, especially the (unintelligible) who decided to stay behind, and they don't want to leave their farms and don't want to leave their land.

BLOCK: And they still don't want to leave their farms or their land, even though there's not much left there.

Mr. STOKES: No, and what happens is that land is important in the Middle East, and people know that if you leave your land and then if somebody else comes and occupies it, you may not see it again and then there's that kind of feeling here. One old man was telling me, what am I going to do? I'm going to go and live in a school in Beirut like the other displaced? He was obviously in his, you know, 60s or 70s, and it's not something that they want to do.

But what can happen is that under the intense shelling or bombardment, then they change their minds and it's too late, because in the end, people do want to hang on to their lives, and sometimes they make the decision to leave the area, but it's too late.

BLOCK: That was Christopher Stokes, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, speaking with us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.