Road Through a Landscape of Death
Washington Post, July 22, 2006; A01
DEIR QANUN AL-NAHR, Lebanon, July 21 -- A road of death and desolation coils through southern Lebanon. It begins in Tyre, where 82 people killed in Israeli attacks this week were sheathed in hastily crafted wooden caskets Friday, their faces pointed toward Mecca, as custom dictates. Each coffin bore a number, and a name, sloppily handwritten on top. Under a blistering sun, they were lined up along a wall, smaller ones for children, including a still-born baby. Women in black uttered prayers; some sobbed in grief. As the temperature climbed, others lifted a corner of their veils to shield their drawn faces from the stench of death. Together, they waited for military trucks to carry the corpses to a temporary mass grave in an empty sandlot.
The road ends in Deir Qanun al-Nahr, a town of 3,000 in the hinterland beyond Tyre, where Fatima Diab and more than 100 other people huddled in a sweltering basement Friday, as Israeli strikes pummeled the villages and valleys around them. She arrived a week ago with no food, no spare clothes and no water. Three radios crackled with news of the war. People prayed. And at times, Diab tried to sleep in the cacophony of bombing and Israeli jets that, on this day, subsided only briefly. "I don't think this war is ever going to end," she said in the dim basement, her face framed in a veil.
In peacetime, the road trip from Tyre to Deir Qanun in southern Lebanon is 10 miles. In war, the town is reached after a 60-mile trek of more than two hours, past pulverized homes, roads blocked by craters, rubble and the burned stumps of citrus trees, forsaken villages with not a resident in sight and long stretches of deserted streets seized with fear of Israeli attacks. The lucky -- with money and means -- have left. The less fortunate, like 19-year-old Diab, hide, as an abandoned, bleak landscape awaits an even fiercer war.
"Take my number! Write it down!" pleaded Abu Hamadeh, a 35-year-old dentist standing in the street in Maarake, on the road to Deir Qanun. "If you know someone who can get ...me to Beirut, I'll pay. Everyone's gone. Tell me how to get there!"
Bombing rattled the iron gate of his building every few minutes, as reverberations of the blasts echoed along the street. "Don't worry," he said, reassuring, as the few women out hurried indoors. "Those are far away."
Hamadeh's generator gave him enough electricity for an hour a day, but fuel was running short. The cost of a liter of gasoline has increased tenfold here. Without power, water from tanks on the roofs cannot be pushed through the faucets. He pointed to the garbage that had collected in piles along the street, putrefying in the heat. Swarms of flies gathered around it. "Look at it," he said, pointing. "We tell the municipality to get it out of here, and they tell us to screw ourselves." "Lebanon has gone back five years," he said. He stopped, shaking his head. "I take that back. Not five, 50."
The most common question along the way these days in southern Lebanon is whether the road is open. Drivers shout it from their windows, to a rare car passing the other way or to someone peering from behind a door. Often, there is no one to ask.
In Bozuriya, the only traffic was a single pickup, barreling down the hilly road with a half-dozen men in back. Each gripped a pole flying a white flag, shirt or towel, sometimes with two hands. Farther down the road, in Jouaiya, an arch welcomed visitors: "Lebanon is a nation of resistance."
No one in the town was fighting. No one was in the streets. The only hint of life was the Muslim call to prayer, lyrical, reassuring and unhurried, its ritual of routine interrupted by the uneven cadence of bombing. "No one's coming out of hiding," said Yusuf Kasani, a stocky 50-year-old carpenter. Kasani lives in Deir Qanun. At the village entrance, bombing had demolished three houses. Patches of the distinctive red tile of Lebanese homes were still intact; the rest was a pile of masonry and metal spilling into the lone street. On the other side, the blast had sheared off the faces of buildings. Residents said 13 people were killed in the attack, four of the corpses still rotting under the wreckage. Down the street, Kasani huddled with the more than 100 people gathered in the basement, the village's only sign of life.
The stately villa of cream stone belongs to the Izzeddin family. They long ago fled to faraway Aley, leaving the house to the displaced. The tomatoes sit untended, and the vines of wild cucumber known as miqti have shriveled without water. The iron gates are open, and down the sidewalk, around the house, through a half-closed metal door, is the dimly lit, unfinished basement.
Hezbollah's radio station, al-Nour, and the BBC played inside. Along the floor, each family had staked out space, throwing down blankets and mattresses. No one has enough drinking water. Occasionally, the youngest men will run to the houses, bringing back food. Elderly women cook it -- rice, potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes picked from the villa's garden -- over a tiny stove hooked up to a blue kerosene tank. Alongside the stove was a pile of logs, for heat in the blustery Lebanese winter. "If we run out of food, we'll eat this," Kasani said. "Everyone here is the same," he went on. "Someone gives me bread, someone gives me food. Then I give when I have it." He grabbed Rida Zalzali, 36. "This is my brother," he said. He pointed to Iman Naseer, 38. "This is my sister." Four-year-old Rayan Zalzali handed a visitor a candy bar. Others offered a fig, a drink of water, even a tissue. "No one here lives on their own," Kasani said.
On this day, the bombing outside the basement was near-constant. Israel repeated its warning that everyone in the south must flee north of the Litani River "immediately."
Missiles fell every few minutes on Srifa, a village across the valley, where dozens of people are believed to be buried in the rubble. The most distant booms barely elicited a response. Those nearer drew the attention of the people huddled in the basement.
"Did you hear that?" an elderly woman asked, a question that seemed to seek comfort more than confirmation.
In the most unsettled times, a longing for the ordinary sometimes seems most powerful. Young women washed dishes, turning water off and on to conserve it. One swept the floor as families stacked their mattresses. Diab, with her family of seven, said most of the time was spent in prayer and in conversations about the war "and the beautiful days before it."
The talk offered a window on the mood of the besieged in southern Lebanon. There is anger at the sense of abandonment -- by their government, by the United Nations and by other Arab states. There is deep hostility toward the United States and Israel, what one resident called "two faces of the same coin."
There is a desperate fear that, out of pride, people express only softly. There is desire for routine, to maintain dignity. And there is talk of never departing, a resonant theme in a land Israel occupied for 18 years.
"We're not going to leave from here -- us, our children, our women, our daughters. Everyone is going to stay," said Hussein Skaiki, a 41-year-old driver. "Let Israel attack us." He pointed to Mohammed Ghassan, "around 70," his legs crippled by diabetes. "The roots of the village are planted in the old people," he said. "If they left, it would be a sin. Their roots hold the ground together."
Lebanon's wars have often held unintended consequences: Israel's invasion in 1978 helped create the southern suburbs of Beirut that are being bombed today; its 1982 invasion forged the climate for Hezbollah's creation. And the Israeli occupation that ended in 2000 helped incubate the myths and mystique that Hezbollah draws on today.
Ahmed Yaacoub speculated about what this war might create. "It will leave a scar the young are going to bear for 50 years," the 52-year-old teacher said, thumbing black prayer beads. "It's this generation's first experience with death, destruction and bombing. They're creating a frame of mind that will last a lifetime."
Diab and her family left her home at 2 p.m. on the war's first day, after a bomb landed 50 yards away. They brought nothing with them, and she said they were too afraid to return. As the idle hours passed, she said she was angry at almost everything around her. "Who's talking about our suffering?" she asked. Her friend, 28-year-old Aqeel Zalzali, interrupted her. "We have a government that doesn't respect us," he said. "Why isn't it supporting the resistance?"
The road from Deir Qanun passes a crater. Perched at its edge is an abandoned car flying a white flag. On one stretch, bombs have buckled the road every 100 yards or so. One of them struck a little past a sign for the International English School. In Abassiya, another patch of homes is now rubble, a black car overturned on top. Dust from the blast coated every building as if a sandstorm had passed.
...The road returns to Tyre, where the city prepared to inter in a temporary grave 81 corpses collected from the villages of southern Lebanon. Once the fighting subsided and the roads were safe again, their families would bury them in their own towns. Through the morning, workers hammered cheap plywood into coffins, each one with a small copper emblem bearing a number. On the covers, the victims' names were scrawled in black, gray, red or pink. Workers wore blue surgical masks in the sun as they placed the bodies in the coffins and then lined them up against a white wall marked with a row of numbers.
The places of origin of the dead read like a map of southern Lebanon: Zibqin, Aitaroun, Naqoura, Yater, Shahour, Bozuriya Maroun al-Ras and Marwaheen, where at least 16 residents fleeing the village were killed in an Israeli attack Saturday. Identification numbers were paired with the names: Saeed Hamza Abbas, No. 39; Zeinab Mehdi, No. 44; Hussein Farid, No. 49; Haitham Farid, No. 50.
"This is so inhuman," said Rabia Abu Khashb, 28, as he surveyed the coffins, 15 sized in half for children. "God protect them," he said softly. "God awaits them."
By afternoon, the military brought them to an open field, where a bulldozer had excavated two trenches 70 yards long and two yards deep. Across the field a house of concrete and cinder block had been struck in a bombing, its floors pancaked. In the backdrop, Israeli air raids targeted the city's outskirts, columns of debris rising into a dusk-shadowed sky.
In the first coffin lay Mustafa Ghannam, one of those fleeing Marwaheen. Then his cousin, Hussein Mohammed Ghannam. Down the row were the coffins of two children from the same family: Qassem Mohammed Ghannam and Zeinab Mohammed Ghannam. A women in black sobbed. "My sweetheart, yesterday you were playing with me. Who will I play with tomorrow?"
Others offered testaments -- photos taken by cell phone or a bystander's whisper: "There is no strength and power save in God." One man yelled, "God is greater than Israel!" Many simply stood, their faces drawn, in silence.
"These people, what was their sin to die?" asked Ziad Shahadi, one of the onlookers.
"None of them was carrying a weapon. None of them was wearing a uniform. None of them were soldiers on the ground," he said. "They were all civilians. There's no military honor in this, none. How could there be? Killing the young and the old."
More coffins were heaved into the grave from the back of an army truck. "Bring number 32!" one soldier yelled. "Number 32 is with you," a colleague answered. "There's no 32 here," another responded. Nails popped out, and a soldier hammered them back in with a rock. A jet trail passed. "Hurry!" one soldier shouted. As the rest of the coffins were lined up, a bulldozer began pushing in fine sand. And as the sun began to set, a last coffin arrived, holding the victim of bombing a few hours before in Burj Shamali, on Tyre's outskirts. The name and number were scrawled with black marker.
Fatima Shaib was No. 82.
Lebanese Town Lays Its Loved Ones, Anonymous to Rest
Los Angeles Times | July 22, 2006
TYRE, Lebanon — They would bury their dead in mass graves, the doctors decided. The government hospital had run out of room for human remains by Friday. More than 100 bomb-wrecked bodies were already crammed into poorly refrigerated container trucks, and more corpses were pouring in daily. So they built cheap coffins of pine. Bulldozers carved 6-foot-deep trenches into a desolate lot littered with old telephone poles.
The stench of death seeped into the warm seaside air as the dead were brought out. Children pinched their noses; the men's faces grew a little stonier. Men and boys jostled on the streets and hoisted themselves up hospital walls to better view the spectacle...
"I've been a doctor for years, and I've never seen anything like this," said Nabil Harkus, a slight man who stood over a trio of unidentified corpses and spoke with slow, intense rage. "They can't fight Hezbollah because Hezbollah is not an army," he said, referring to the Israeli warplanes overhead. "They kill the people because they think it's the only way to stop Hezbollah."
The Lebanese government has confirmed the deaths of about 350 people in the fighting, but rescue workers here warn that the tally is probably much higher. Relentless bombing has wrecked roads and rendered communication so spotty that no one knows how many people have died. Soubiha Abdullah rocked back and forth as she waited for the bodies of her family to be pulled from a heap of remains. The doctors had given her rubber gloves and a surgical mask, which she wore over her head scarf.
She had come to identify and bury 24 members of her family, including her sister and her sister's nine children. They died trying to escape their village; Israeli planes had attacked the road as they drove. "I'm saying, 'God give me the strength to see them,' " she said. "We just want to see them, even if they're pieces of meat."
It was a crude burial carried out under a baking sun, but even that was much better than most people felled in south Lebanon's furious fighting could expect. In the 75 villages surrounding Tyre, at least 180 people have been killed, according to the district's Red Cross office. The International Committee of the Red Cross says those are only the ones it knows about and that there may be more.
In the village of Srifa, just 10 minutes outside Tyre, 60 to 80 corpses remain trapped in the rubble of a building, according to the Red Cross. "There's no way to get them out," said Qasim Chaalan, a Red Cross volunteer. "The firemen are afraid to go to that area, and they're the ones with the equipment."
At least one Red Cross ambulance has been hit by an Israeli missile, Chaalan said, and there have been near-misses as well. Rescue workers have decided that there's no point in risking their necks to pick up a corpse. "They'll take the risk if there's a wounded casualty," he said, "but not if there's just a body."
In Tibnin, hard against the border with Israel, about 1,200 wounded have been rushed to a hospital that has no doctor, said Stephane Sisco, a physician with the French humanitarian group Doctors of the World. He sat in an army office in Tyre on Friday, pleading for help getting to the border. His prospects didn't look good.
"Too many people are dying because we can't get to them and give medicine. It's the same with food," Chaalan said. "Most times the volunteers are just sitting by themselves and just crying because they can't do anything for these people." Nearby, the mass burial was about to begin. It was an oddly workmanlike event, largely lacking in the outbursts of wailing and keening that often provide catharsis at funerals. There was a hardness in the air, perhaps brought forth by anger, exhaustion and a general sense of dread. The coffins were plain and thin, hammered together overnight. They had been stacked tidily in the hospital gardens, their lids off to one side. Some were short, designed for children.
A man with a canister sprayed clouds of formaldehyde over the empty pine boxes; the haze of chemicals caught in the breeze and carried over the crowd. The mourners and townspeople coughed and rubbed tears from reddened eyes.
Then the hospital workers opened the back doors of the refrigerated truck full of bodies, and the ritual began: A man in a surgical mask stood in the back of the truck. He shouted out the name of each dead person as he lowered the remains. Whole bodies had been shrouded in blankets, wrapped in sheets of plastic and bound by duct tape. Other bodies, more badly broken, were handed down in plastic trash bags.
The man held aloft a baby so tiny it was unclear if it was a late-term fetus or a newborn. Its skin was mottled and purple. "Look at this!" he shouted. A murmur passed through the crowd. "Oh no, no, no," a man muttered...
Family members waiting in the crowd came forward to unwrap their relatives from the plastic, line their coffins with bedsheets and say goodbye. But most of the victims had no relatives present; their coffin lids were nailed shut by strangers. A woman named Wafah Abdullah broke from the crowd around the coffins and walked dizzily in a circle. "I just saw my nephew," she said. She wandered over to a flowering shrub, stood staring at it for a moment and then walked some more. She flapped her hands in front of her face as if she could push away what she'd seen. Then she spoke: "He was beautiful."
Bombs exploded in the distance; jet trails were visible against the blue sky. On the ground, a woman dressed in black sat by an empty coffin and sang a traditional mourning song. "Where are the young men?" she sang, and then sang it again.
When the lids were hammered tight, men spray-painted victims' names onto the coffins. Once the fighting subsides, families will be able to reclaim their loved ones from the mass grave. They carried the coffins through the hospital gates and then lined them up along the muddy road. The hospital is in the middle of a Palestinian refugee camp. They would bury 72 on Friday and leave the rest for another day. Fresh graffiti on the wall read "72 martyrs."
Onlookers muttering curses against Israel and America milled around the stairs and shop doors of the refugee camp, which were covered with old pictures of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian Authority president. The sun was hot, the flies thick and the crowds persistent. Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics prayed over the dead. The Lebanese army sent trucks to collect the coffins and soldiers to serve as pallbearers. Four soldiers hoisted each coffin; they stacked them in the backs of the trucks. The streets held the unnatural quiet that settles uncomfortably over a crowd awed by death.
By the time the green army trucks made their way to the vacant lot, shadows had grown long. As the coffins lined the trenches, a man with white hair began to yell. "This is what Bush wants! This is what this dog wants!" he cried. "It's full of children!"
An elderly woman in black perched at the edge of the grave. "My darling Mariam, my only daughter," she moaned. "Twenty-seven years old, my darling, 27 years old." It was a singsong of grief. People stood by silently. In the town, fresh smoke rose into the sky. Another bomb had fallen.