Bombing respite gives Lebanon's war weary an exit

Fighting paused Monday in the Hizbullah stronghold Bint Jbail giving the old and frail a chance to flee.

They emerged from the ruins, frail men and women stumbling over the rubble that carpets what was this town's main street before nearly three weeks of warfare turned it into a wasteland.

An Israeli concession to suspend air operations for 48 hours beginning Sunday night provided an opportunity for the few remaining residents of Bint Jbail, the largest Shiite town in the border district, and a string of other villages to flee their bomb-shattered homes before fighting resumes.

Columns of cars, minibuses, and even tractors, carrying wagons filled with civilians waving white sheets, flowed down the bomb-cratered roads for the relative safety of Tyre.

Israel had intended to capture Bint Jbail a week ago when troops advanced into the southern outskirts to fight well-entrenched Hizbullah fighters armed with antitank missiles. Israel has called this the "symbol of Hizbullah" and considers the fight here crucial to driving the Shiite militants out of the border district. It is here that Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's chief, claimed victory over Israel when Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000.

After suffering comparatively high casualties, Israeli soldiers pulled back to the hilltop village of Maroun er-Ras to the southeast. Hizbullah fighters melted away into the landscape to await the next confrontation.

So far the battle here has been one with no victors.

Monday, only the elderly and sick were left to gaze in horror at what has become of their once bustling market town.

"I have been here since the beginning. It has been a nightmare," says Mohammed Bazzi, a wizened-looking 70-year-old. His sister Mariam Bazzi, 76, was too frail to walk or even speak. Reporters here carried the dehydrated woman across the rubble in a blanket. Her long white hair fluffed around her face as she sipped from a bottle of water.

"We were in the basement of our building, and it was completely destroyed. I narrowly escaped death," Mr. Bazzi says. He says they had no food and lived on instant coffee, powdered milk, and water.

Although the outskirts of the town, which lies spread over the side of a hill, is relatively undamaged, the center of Bint Jbail is destroyed. Building facades are pitted with shrapnel holes; traditional stone houses lining the narrow winding streets are badly damaged or flattened. Dozens of cars were crushed under the debris of destroyed houses.

Sikni Hammoud sat on a stool beside a store refrigerator filled with bottles of water, chocolate bars, and soft drinks. Someone had smashed the glass and helped themselves to food and drinks.

"I want to leave this place anyway I can, but I can't walk," she says, raising her hands in despair.

She says they spent the past 20 days crammed into a basement of their building with 30 other people, many of them children. "We heard shooting and our house was struck with rockets. It was terrible, terrible," she says. "My brothers and sisters are all in America or Australia. I have no one here to help me."

Bint Jbail, a town of about 25,000 residents, has strong links to the US as the population here has a history of emigrating to Dearborn, Mich., and some to New York.

"Many of the people here are American passport holders, and they will find them lying under the rubble in the weeks to come," says Issam Hijazi, from nearby Tibnine.

Despite its links with the US, there is broad support for Hizbullah in Bint Jbail. The local hospital is run by Hizbullah and named after Saleh Ghandour, who blew himself up in 1995 beside an Israeli army patrol in Bint Jbail. There were few Hizbullah men to be seen in the desolation, however. One plain clothes Hizbullah man clutching a walkie-talkie waved away photographers as he darted through the ruins.

"This is a disaster. Just because of a certain group of people, why did the Israelis have to destroy everything?" asks Sayyed Ali Hakim, a religious cleric who leaned heavily on his walking stick as he stumbled over the chunks of concrete and masonry in the street. The "certain group" he's referring to is Hizbullah.

"Israel took its revenge against civilians," he says. He paused, then adds, "What will it take to get our town back? It has returned to nothing."

Mr. Hakim was one of 70 people sheltered in the basement of his old stone house with no sanitation, no electricity, and dwindling supplies of food and water. "We ate and drank normally at first but as the fighting lengthened, we began rationing everything," he says.

The house was destroyed over their heads, although no one was hurt in the basement. "My cousin is still trapped under the rubble," he says, asking how she could be saved.

The Red Cross workers pressed further into the destruction of Bint Jbail Monday carrying stretchers while more lines of survivors with small children and plastic bags full of essentials trickled from the ruins.

Ibrahim Dakhlallah squeezed through a hole in a wall beside the town's sports stadium, wincing as he knocked his broken arm in a bloodstained sling. "I was praying in my house when a bomb exploded near me and hit my arm. I have shrapnel in my back and legs," he says.

A hysterical Laila Dakhlallah, wearing a full-length black chador, says that her two children had been killed in the fighting.

"I am going to stand and fight," she screamed. "George Bush is a criminal. I have lost my children and I don't care if I die. Everything dear to me has been taken away."

Laila and Ibrahim Dakhlallah are among some 15 people who had squeezed into a tiny room down some steps at the back of a two-story house. Five thin mattresses covered the floor.

Shelves that had been stocked with food were covered by white sheets. A small radio on a ledge was their one means of learning what was happening around them. Smashed glass covered the floor of the sitting room. In the kitchen, stuck to a glass-fronted cupboard, were cheerful family pictures of smiling children and parents.

On the wall of the sitting room was a framed sign saying in gold Arabic letters, "In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful."

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