Anger grows as Lebanese seek refuge

Israeli warplanes continued bombing southern Lebanon, while troops met resistance in Hizbullah strongholds.

Wearing only slippers on his feet, it took Yussef Beydoun two-and-a-half terrifying hours to walk from his shell-battered village of Kounine to the relative safety of Tibnine.

Here the 78-year-old is one of some 1,600 refugees crammed into Tibnine's government-run hospital, all of them having fled from a cluster of Shiite hill villages to the south. With drinking water running out, no milk, no electricity, and declining stocks of food, as well as little prospect of imminent escape from Tibnine, the refugees are caught in a vortex of confusion, anger, and despair.

"All the time there's bombing, all the houses have been hit. I thought my heart would stop," says Mr. Beydoun, a slim stooped man with a white floppy hat shading his face from the intense midday sun. He says he left Kounine after his house was flattened by Israeli bombing, killing his Sri Lankan and Ethiopian maids.

"They are still buried under the rubble," he says.

Tibnine, a mixed Shiite and Christian town famous for its Crusader fortress, looks south across a shallow valley of stony grassland and tobacco fields that gently rises to a crest, marked Tuesday by puffs of grey smoke from shell bursts.

Out of sight on the other side of the ridge isBint Jbail, the largest Shiite town in the border district and the nexus of Israel's 13-day onslaught against Hizbullah guerrillas. Israeli commanders say they now have the strategic town surrounded.

Surrounding Shiite villages, such as Aitaroun, Kounine, Beit Yahoun, and Ainatta have also borne the brunt of Israel's air and artillery blitz.

"It's very bad in Kounine," says Souad Shibli, an Egyptian nurse whose Lebanese husband is working in Kuwait. "All night there are explosions. We want cars to go to Beirut. Please tell [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan we must have cars to get us out," she adds, her voice becoming more shrill.

Packed into the entrance of the hospital are dozens of refugees anxiously awaiting news of where the next food is coming from or if a way out of Tibnine has been found.

"The taxis are charging $100 each to take us to Beirut. Who here has $100?" screams Majida Bazzi, her arms flailing wildly in her rage. "There's nowhere to escape the bombing. We have no cars. There's no water in the hospital. Nothing."

The stairs leading to the hospital basement are lined with women, sitting silently, clutching children or babies, talking quietly or just staring blankly.

The narrow cramped passageways in the basement are filled with people who instinctively headed below ground in case Israeli shells strike the hospital. The only light is from candles placed every few yards. Most of the refugees huddled in the basement appear to be sleeping on the cold cement floor.

If Israel hopes that its military campaign will turn Lebanon's Shiites against Hizbullah, whose capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 sparked the current conflagration, then it would appear they miscalculated, judging from the mood of these refugees.

"God grant protection for Nasrallah," they chant, referring to Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader.

"You go to [US President] Bush and tell him to come here and you will see what we will do with him," yells Bilal Jumaa, a shopkeeper from Bint Jbail who has spent the past week in the hospital. The throng gathered around him cheered loudly at his words.

The refugees naturally considered the hospital as a safe haven from the incessant artillery barrages and airstrikes around them, but there have been several near misses. Several days ago, a missile fired from an Israeli jet exploded close to the Lebanese Red Cross center, adjacent to the hospital, causing some damage.

Earlier Tuesday, artillery shelling set fire to the tinder dry grass on a steep slope below the Red Cross center. Thick black smoke wafted in through the broken windows of the building while the crackle of burning brush was punctuated every few seconds by the ear-splitting sound of more artillery rounds exploding nearby.

The Lebanese Red Cross and their counterparts in the International Committee of the Red Cross are almost the only humanitarian workers traveling the deadly roads of south Lebanon. But their ability to help ferry casualties to hospital is limited.

Ali Hamadeh, another Red Cross volunteer, says that the center received a call the other day from a man who said his house in Aitaroun had been hit by an Israeli missile and collapsed on top of 30 people inside.

"He couldn't reach them under the rubble and we couldn't get there either because of the bombings," says Mr. Hamadeh. "If anyone was badly injured ... they will be dead by now."

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