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French Version

Terrified villagers find refuge at hospital - but little else

Wearing only slippers on his feet, it took Youssef 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, fear, anger and despair.

"All the time there's bombing; all the houses have been hit. It was very bad. I thought my heart would stop," said Beydoun, a slim, stooped man with a white floppy hat shading his stubbly beard and weather-beaten face from the midday sun. He said 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 said.

Tibnine, a mixed Shiite and Christian town famous for its Crusader fortress, looks south across a shallow valley of stony grassland and tobacco fields which gently rises to a crest, marked Tuesday by puffs of gray smoke and dust from shell bursts. Out of sight on the other side of the ridge is Bint Jbeil, the largest Shiite town in the border district and the nexus of Israel's 13-day onslaught against Hizbullah. Bint Jbeil and the surrounding Shiite villages, such as Aitaroun, Kounine, Beit Yahoun and Ainatta have borne the brunt of Israel's air and artillery blitz.

"It's very bad in Kounine," said Souad Shibli, 45, an Egyptian nurse whose Lebanese husband is working in Kuwait. "All night there are explosions. We want cars to go to Beirut. Please tell Kofi Annan we must have cars to get us out," she added, her voice becoming more desperate and shrill.

Packed into the entrance of the hospital are dozens of refugees - old rheumy-eyed men, small wide-eyed children, many women, some dressed in full-length black chadors, - all of them anxiously awaiting news of where the next food is coming from or if a way out of Tibnine has been discovered.

"The taxis are charging $100 each to take us to Beirut. Who here has $100?" screamed 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 on the steps, clutching small children or babies, talking quietly or just staring blankly in silence.

A Lebanese soldier at the hospital says that five babies have been born prematurely in the past few days. The narrow cramped passageways in the basement are filled with people, some standing others sitting, having instinctively headed below ground in case Israeli shells strike the hospital.

The only light is from the feeble yellow glow of flickering candles placed every few meters, shedding just enough light to see the fearful shadowed faces of the refugees in their claustrophobic confines. Two young men squeeze through the passageway, thin mattresses clutched tightly to their chest. But most of the refugees huddled in the basement appear to be sleeping on the cold cement floor.

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

"God grant your protection for Nasrallah," they chanted, referring to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader.

"You go to Bush and tell him to come here and you will see what we will do with him," yelled Bilal Jumaa, a shopkeeper from Bint Jbeil who has spent the past week in the hospital. The throng gathered around him broke out into loud applause at his words.

The refugees naturally considered the hospital as a safe haven from the incessant artillery barrages and air strikes 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 light 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. With the shelling making the roads too dangerous to travel, Wafaa Shuqair, 19, and Ahmad Fawaz, 21, two Red Cross volunteers, took a moment out to smoke a nargileh, ignoring the nearby shellbursts. "When we can't get out, we sit here and smoke a nargileh," Shuqair said with a contented grin.

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

Ali Hamadeh, 25, another Red Cross volunteer, said that the center received a panicked phone call the other day from a man who said that 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," Hamadeh said. "If anyone was badly wounded or hemorrhaging, they will be dead by now."

Beirut 26-07-2006
Nicolas Blanford
The Daily Star

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