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French Version

Qana relives 1996 massacre as air strike kills at least 60 civilians

The bodies were carried into daylight one by one, all gray-skinned with dust, one small boy his mouth stuffed with dirt, a stiffened arm pointing accusingly into the air. Wasps and flies buzzed with greedy excitement around his face and blood-sodden hair.

It's Ali Shalhoub," muttered an onlooker as the child was placed on a stretcher and carried away.

Ten years after Israeli forces slaughtered more than 100 civilians sheltering in a United Nations base in Qana, mass death has visited this straggly hill village once again.

"Where is the humanity? Why are these massacres being committed against civilians?" asked Naim Raqa, the head of the Lebanese Civil Defense unit in the nearby village of Jawaya, who was assisting in the rescue operation.

There were dozens of people drawn from two extended families sleeping on the ground floor of an unfinished house when an Israeli jet dropped two bombs on them, destroying most of the building and crushing at least 60 victims under rubble and dirt. Only eight people managed to survive the massive double blast and haul themselves from beneath the debris.

It was the bloodiest moment so far in Israel's 19-day onslaught against Lebanon.

The half-finished three-story house belonged to Abbas Hashem and lay at the end of a

narrow lane that winds down a hillside flanked by olive groves and small tobacco patches.

The Hashem family and their close neighbors, the Shalhoubs, had moved onto the ground floor 10 days earlier, hoping that a large pile of dirt and sand for construction would help protect them from the heavy artillery bombardments and repeated air strikes in and around Qana.

Although most residents of this village of some 12,000 people had already fled to Tyre, 10 kilometers to the west, or headed further north, the Shalhoub and Hashem families had found themselves cut off.

"We couldn't get out of our neighborhood because there are only two roads leading out and the Israelis bombed them both several days ago," said Mohammad Shalhoub, a disabled 41-year-old who was recovering in Tyre's government hospital.

Both families were asleep when the two bombs dropped hit the building in rapid succession at 1 a.m.

"I felt the blast throw me across the room. I was buried under the rubble along with the martyrs," Mohammad said.

Mohammad's wife, Rabab, hauled him clear of the debris and rescued their son, Hassan, 4, but his daughter Zeinab, 6, was left dead under the rubble. He also lost his sister, Fatmeh, and brother, Tayseer.

Further air strikes and heavy artillery bombardments during the night - which destroyed at least four other houses in the neighborhood - meant that it was another six hours before the rescue services could reach the stricken village.

The Hashem house leaned at a perilous angle, threatening to collapse at any moment, as Civil Defense workers climbed gingerly into the building to recover the dead. Two soldiers used spades to carefully dig away at a pile of dirt under which most of the victims were buried.

A kitten mewed as it scampered over the ruins of its dead owner's home. On a patch of land beside the house, tobacco leaves threaded on wires dried to a wrinkled brown in the sun. Beside the partially demolished house was a deep crater, a familiar sight in South Lebanon, where hundreds of buildings have been flattened by powerful aerial bombs.

Throughout the morning under a blazing sun, sweating rescue workers removed bodies from the house. Most of them were children under 12, all coated in gray dust, some with mouths, eyes and ears clogged with dirt. They showed little signs of injury, however, despite having been sleeping just meters from where the bombs struck.

"They suffocated under the dirt," said Sami Yazbek, head of Tyre's Lebanese Red Cross unit.

Kamil Sleiman, 35, and Ibrahim Skayki, 38, from the neighboring villages of Ain Baal and Biyada, said they heard the news on television and had come to help. They squatted against a stone wall for a cigarette break, their arms smeared with sweat and dust.

"We lost seven people in Ain Baal," Skayki said, adding that his carpentry business was destroyed in the first of many air raids on the village since the war began on July 12. "I lost my work and I had debts to pay, but it's a sacrifice for the resistance."

An earth-mover ground down the lane and began clawing chunks of concrete away from the building. Even as the rescue team toiled to recover the dead, Israeli jets continued to roar overhead and the thump of air strikes and exploding artillery shells reverberated around the steep valley.

Amid the despair and the grim task of removing the victims, there was deep anger at what they regarded as the callous indifference of the West to their suffering. "We will never wave the white flag. We won't retreat," said Mohammad Shalhoub. "I say to the West, this is not the kind of freedom and democracy we want."

Mohammad's phone rang constantly as friends and family asked about him and his relatives. One woman, her voice tinny but audible over the cellphone's loudspeaker, introduced herself as a friend of Tayseer.

"I am his brother," Mohammad told her.

"How is he?" she asked.

"May God have mercy on him," he replied gently.

The woman began to sob, moaning: "no, no."

Another phone call and Shalhoub reeled off a list of names of people who died or survived. "Najwa was injured, Zeinab was martyred," he said. On mentioning the name of Zeinab, his daughter, he choked up and began weeping while a woman placed a comforting arm across his shoulder.

In a neighboring bed lay Noor Hashem, 13, a niece of Abbas Hashem, in whose house she was sheltering. In a shy tremulous voice, Noor said her mother pulled her free from the rubble along with her older sister, Zeinab, and took them to a neighboring house. Her mother returned to try and find Noor's three brothers.

"They haven't come to the hospital yet and my mother hasn't returned," she said, and began crying.

Her three brothers are dead, the youngest only 10 months old, but no one at the hospital had the heart to break the news to Noor.

In April 1996, during another attempt by Israel to crush Hizbullah, more than 100 civilians were killed when Israeli artillery shells struck the headquarters of the Fijian UN peacekeeping battalion in Qana, just five minutes' walk from the Hashem house. The international outcry over that first Qana massacre forced Washington to begin urgently negotiating a cease-fire agreement to halt the bloodshed.

But even as Israeli troops mounted a new incursion into Lebanon faced stiff resistance from Hizbullah fighters, residents of this tragic village feared the worst.

"When Israel is feeling weakened," said Ghazi Idibi, 38, a neighbor of Abbas Hashem, "it commits bigger and bigger massacres."

Beirut 31-07-2006
Nicolas Blanford
The Daily Star

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