South Lebanon bears war's brunt

Civilians try to flee but are stymied by blown-up bridges and roadways leading to the north.

With goatlike agility, Yussef Jaafar scrambles over the rubble that, until a few hours earlier, had been the home of his aunt, Im Suheil Qudsi.

Somewhere beneath that tangle of concrete, twisted steel rods, and thick gray dust – the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike – lay the remains of Mrs. Qudsi and her 30-year-old daughter-in-law and her three children, ages 4 to 11. "They are under the rubble but no one will help me," Mr. Jaafar says.

His is but one example of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in south Lebanon, where, since last Wednesday, Israel has been pounding the scruffy villages that dot these stony hills and valleys.

The bombing of roads and bridges linking the south to the rest of Lebanon has created a zone, UN peacekeepers here say, for the Israeli military to pursue its campaign against Lebanon's Hizbullah guerrillas. But it is civilians who are bearing the brunt of the conflict between the two old foes.

"They are only hitting civilians, not members of the party," Jaafar charges, referring to Hizbullah fighters. "They take out one house, and with it a whole family dies."

According to eyewitness accounts from survivors interviewed by the Monitor, Israel is striking homes, schools, town centers, using bombs that obliterate entire buildings. Israel is targeting the region because it is a Hizbullah stronghold and the base for rocket attacks on northern Israel.

Vehicles, including ambulances, according to hospital workers, have been shelled by gunboats and have been hit by helicopter gunfire. Even the Jabel Amel Hospital in Tyre has been hit, struck early Sunday morning by a missile, demolishing an entire wing and killing a family of nine.

The bombing campaign has generated fear as well as deep anger that the West has not intervened to halt the bloodshed.

"[President] Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair are breeding future generations of suicide bombers here. You will see. Is it right to destroy a country for just two soldiers?" asked a furious Mustafa Safieddine, referring to the Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbullah last week.

(Mr. Blair and Annan called Monday for sending international forces into southern Lebanon, while the US said it did not oppose such a move.)

The conflict raging in the south has triggered an exodus, with tens of thousands of residents streaming north. But with all the bridges blown up over the Litani River – which cuts across much of south Lebanon – many residents either waded across or drove over a hastily built causeway.

Israel is broadcasting warnings to the population of south Lebanon over the old radio station once operated by its Lebanese militia allies in the 1990s. Tuesday, the residents of Aitaroun and Bint Jbeil, close to the border, were ordered to leave their homes by 3 p.m. The village of Aitaroun has lost two families in the past four days, totaling 20 people, when their houses were blown apart in airstrikes.

More than 200 people have been killed since the onslaught began last Wednesday. In the last major Israeli offensive against Hizbullah, in April 1996, 170 Lebanese died over a two-week period.

At the Jabel Amel Hospital, Ahmad Mrowe, the hospital's director, said workers had recovered five of the bodies of those killed Sunday. "There are another four under the rubble," says Dr. Mrowe. "We have many people in the basement."

People continued to trickle in along with reports of more deaths in southern villages – a family of nine in Aitaroun, five people in Qana.

Thirteen-year-old Walid Abu Zeidi lay on his hospital bed, his arm wrapped in a bandage. He and his friends had been swimming in the Litani River, 5 miles north of Tyre, Tuesday when a missile exploded nearby. "I saw the flash of the missile, then I was thrown down," he says.

The basement halls were filled with shocked-looking refugees. Frightened children sat with their mothers and sisters as doctors and relatives hurried by.

Three-year-old Nimr Rmeity had a bandage on his head where he was struck by shrapnel Sunday when a missile hit a nearby house, killing his uncle Mohammed and wounding 16 others.

A family from Shaytieh, south of Tyre, sat in silence. "This is Israeli terror, but we will resist," a girl said softly.

The ancient Phoenician port of Tyre, which reaches into the Mediterranean on a causeway built by Alexander the Great, suffered multiple airstrikes Sunday. Other than the hospital, a 12-story building where the Lebanese civil defense units were based, was hit by a missile, killing 20 people.

"It was the most terrifying night of my life," said Ghassan Raad. "We sat in the basement of my apartment building just waiting for a bomb to fall and kill us. This morning, we couldn't stand it and we all left for the north."

"We left immediately when we heard the warning not stopping to pack of even bring money," says Ali Hijazi, who undertook the perilous trip from Aitaroun along cratered roads to the sea front Rest House hotel in Tyre which has become a refugee center. "We saw people in Bint Jbeil and other places pleading at us to stop and take them, but we had no room. There was nothing we could do for them," he adds.

Mr Hijazi says that the village had run out of basic food and there was almost no drinking water left.

Hundreds of foreign tourists, visiting Tyre's world famous archaeological ruins, also have found themselves trapped by the war. "What are the Israelis doing? It's madness. Why isn't the world doing anything to stop this?" asked a shaken Anne-Marie Casales, a French woman vacationing with her teenage daughter and son. "I have been calling my family in Paris and none of them know what's happening down here."

Most of the foreign media have been stuck north of the Litani River, unable to report on the situation. Reaching Tyre, normally an hour's drive from Beirut down the coastal highway, has become a tortuous and tense five-hour ordeal via the Chouf mountains.

The winding roads were clogged with traffic as refugees inched northward to the relative safety of Beirut. But by the time the southern market town of Nabatieh was reached, the roads were empty and the skies were filled with the roar of Israeli jets and the whine of drones. A half-hour drive along an old road beside the Litani led to the newly built causeway, for now the only lifeline connecting the south to the rest of the country.

Even the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) has found itself unable to dispatch urgently needed relief convoys into the beleaguered villages of the border area to evacuate terrified residents or supply drinking water and basic staples.

A convoy of Chinese UNIFIL engineers dispatched to recover the bodies of the Qudsi family outside Tyre was forced to turn back when the road it was traveling along came under fire from artillery and Israeli navy gunboats.

UNIFIL's civilian staff have been evacuated from its headquarters in the coastal village of Naqoura, one mile north of the border, and have taken refuge in the Rest House hotel on the Tyre sea front.

Although UNIFIL is pressing the Israelis to allow it freedom of movement in the south, the peacekeepers estimate that its supply of fuel for trucks and armored personnel carriers will run out by the weekend which will completely paralyze the force until it can be resupplied from Beirut.

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