Lebanon / Israel
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
We spent the night in the Sidon, a town of more than 100,000 people which in the past three weeks has seen its population increase by half as it is now hosting some 50,000 people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes by continuous Israeli bombardments throughout South Lebanon.
Indeed such bombardments continue, with bridges, roads, supermarkets, petrol stations and family homes routinely hit by Israeli warplanes. At around 8.am we were preparing for our first meeting when we heard several very loud explosions - there are no warning sirens or shelters here. Israeli figher-jets had just bombed three buildings in Ghazieh, a village on the outskirts of Sidon, burying several women and children, in the rubble of their homes.
In the afternoon we visited the sites of the attacks in the centre Ghazayeh, in a built up areas. At least three multi-storey buildings were completely destroyed and neighbouring ones were badly damaged.
At the first site we visited a crowd of several dozen people were trying to help clear the rubble and support the emergency services. Some heavy lifting equipment was heaving away large pieces of fallen concrete, and special pipe-cutting machinery was being used to clear the debris.
After working all day, rescue workers appeared to believe that one person at least might still be alive under the fallen concrete, and repeatedly shouted into the rubble hoping to hear a sign of life. An ambulance was brought to the site, and medics dressed in orange boiler suits from the Lebanese Red Cross waited in anticipation they would be needed to help survivors.
Several photographers and TV crews jostled for the best angle, seemingly in the hope that someone would emerge alive from the smoking concrete.
Even with heavy machinery, it was a slow process. They had started soon after the morning attacks, and by 4 pm there still appeared a long way to dig down into the debris.
Further along the road we saw half a dozen of cars crushed and incinerated by the other bombs. Multi-storey buildings had been flattened, and families in neighbouring buildings had lost the outer wall of their living room.
This site was larger than the first. Two earth movers and a bulldozer were clearing away the large concrete lumps and twisted metal as dozens of men scooped out the earth with their hands.
This was the house where a hairdresser lived with her parents and young children, we were told. Dozens of people helped remove the earth and rubble from here too, but without the urgency of the first site. The bodies of two women and two children had already been pulled out from under the rubble and no-one seemed to hold out any hope of finding any survivors. There were no waiting cameras.
Eventually, a blue blanket emerged from the rubble and the crowd fell silent. An older man was brought in and he lifted a corner of the blanket to reveal a woman's foot. Other pieces of debris were removed until she could be lifted out. Her face looked young. The body was gently wrapped in a sheet and carried to a stretcher.
The digging went on to find the bodies of other children who had apparently been sleeping next to her when the Israeli air strike occurred. At least five more people are reported to have been killed.
As we arrived back in Beirut in the early evening there were several more explosions as Israeli warplanes again bombed the Dahia neighbourhood, which has been repeatedly bombed since the first day of the conflict 26 days ago. In this part of the capital the destruction caused by the Israeli air strikes is indescribable: Scores of buildings 10 storey or higher have been flattened and scores of others have been damaged beyond repair. Tens of thousands of people have been made homeless in this area of the capital alone.
As we turned on the evening news we could not find any reports of these attacks on the major international television channel. One question we are often asked here is why the international community seem to attach so little value to the lives of Lebanese civilians.
Tuesday 8th August
Today we visited the district of Shiyah in southern Beirut, the target of several Israeli air strikes the previous evening. This was the first time the neighborhood had been bombed by the Israeli army, and residents had thought it was a safe area.
People were going about their normal evening business when the bombs struck. Children were playing on the streets, people were shopping, returning home from work etc. The neighbourhood was not known as a Hizbullah stronghold and residents believed that it was excluded from the list of Israeli targets. A six-storey apartment block with an internet cafe at the bottom was hit by two bombs launched by Israeli fighter-jets at around 6pm.
One young man said some families in the building had come from other neighborhoods previously bombed, thinking the area was safe. Last week, Israeli planes had dropped leaflets over Beirut telling people to leave four specific districts that would be bombed. The four areas did not include Shiyah.
Another man in his 30s said he was buying bread a couple of streets away when the planes struck. A few minutes before, his brother had gone to the mosque next to where the bombs landed. The man ran to look for him, and found him scared but unharmed. He said an ambulance crew had by chance been nearby and had rushed to give first aid to some of the victims.
Pieces of concrete and shattered glass were scattered for hundreds of meters around the blasts. When we arrived in the early afternoon the total death toll was still not known as the rescue efforts were ongoing. Most estimates put the number of dead at more than 20 and those injured at over 30, but no-one could be sure of the number of bodies still under the rubble.
The Lebanese Army tried unsuccessfully to maintain a cordon around the flattened building, and exhausted ambulance crews sat slumped against a wall while others replaced them in digging up the rubble. Two heavy lifting machines were on the site but it was slow work moving the mountain of broken concrete. Dozens of the victims' relatives gathered to look on, knowing there was no hope of anyone being found alive.
Red Cross workers waited nearby with orange stretchers to take away the corpses, and camera crews competed for the best vantage points. Now and then the emergency workers warned the journalists to move back when a particularly large slab of concrete was being lifted away.
Torn Brazilian and Italian flags hung from surrounding walls, remnants of the World Cup. It was similar to the scenes we had seen the previous day in Ghazieh, but on a larger scale. This time a wider area was hit, and more civilians were killed.
Some of the crowd shouted at us angrily: "Why don't you tell the west the truth of what is happening?" and "Be sure to show the real pictures of what happened here".
It is hard to leave these bomb sites, somehow disrespectful to those lying dead under the rubble to walk away until their bodies have all been brought out. But we leave, knowing we are of no help to those searching through the rubble for the bodies of he victims.
Today, the woman who we saw being lifted out of rubble of her destroyed home in Ghazieh yesterday afternoon was buried. She and her children were killed when her home was bombed by Israeli planes yesterday morning. In all, 15 people were killed in the attacks. Today, Israeli aircrafts fired on her funeral, killing another dozen people.
Last week the killing by Israeli forces of 20 Lebanese civilians in a single incident attracted media attention. This week it appears routine and does not make headlines. Since the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah on 12 July some 800 civilians have been killed by Israeli forces. In the same period, some 40 Israeli civilians have been killed by Hizbullah rockets.
Thursday / Friday 10-11 August
We followed up on the bombardment by the Israeli air force of a residential building in the Shyah neighbourhood of Beirut on 7 August. Bodies of the residents killed in the attack were still being dug up from under the rubble. By Thursday evening the death toll stood at over 50.
We also continued to speak to relatives of people who were killed in villages in South Lebanon in the previous week and whose bodies remained under the rubble as continuous air strikes prevented the Red Cross or any other rescue workers from approaching the villages to recover the bodies. The son of Mousa Abdallah Wahba, aged 85, and the niece of another elderly man, judge Mahmoud Aqil Hammoudi, who were both killed in their homes in the village of Ainata on 21 July in an Israeli attack and who remained under the rubble, were desperately seeking help to recover their bodies. However, so long as Israeli air strikes continued it was not possible for anyone to do so.
In the early afternoon of Thursday, while talking to a local human rights defender in her office in the centre of Beirut, we saw the sky being filled with leaflets being dropped from Israeli planes. As we left the office we picked up some of the leaflets which were littering the streets. The leaflets called on the inhabitants of Beirut to leave the districts of Hay Sulm, Bourj al Bourajni and Shyah, as these were likely to be bombed by the Israeli air force. The latter, Shyah, had already been bombed without warning three days earlier.
The reaction of people who picked up the leaflets was mostly bewilderment. On the one hand these were areas which had hitherto been considered "safe", and on the other hand it was simply not possible for more than 100,000 residents of these three neighbourhoods to leave their homes - they had nowhere to go to. A quarter of the entire Lebanese population had already been displaced from their homes and there just was no more capacity in schools, public parks etc to accommodate large numbers of new displaced people. In addition, people were increasingly feeling that since Israeli forces were bombarding areas about which they had not issued prior warning, it was not possible to know where it would be safe anyway.
On Thursday the Israeli army also issued warning that it would bombard any trucks on the northern routes out of Lebanon into Syria. We were due to leave the following morning via Syria - the only route out of the Lebanon - and we had to be prepared to review our plans. The following morning the news was that the Israeli air force had indeed bombarded both roads. The shorter route, via the al-Masna crossing, which had been bombed several times in the previous weeks and which was only partially operational, had been put out of use completely and the longer route, via the Aboudiyeh crossing, was also affected as a key bridge had been bombed and completely destroyed overnight. We had to make an additional detour which added a further hour or so to the already lengthy journey out of Lebanon.
# 12:26 PM
Monday morning, 7th August
We had scheduled meetings all morning with Haifa municipal and police officials and NGOs from the Haifa area. We were not sure if after the incidents of the evening before whether they would be able to meet with us or not. Although some of the meetings started late, we were able to keep all our meetings. We also learned that two of the dead, Arab Christians in their 60s, were killed by the ball bearings packed into the rockets. The third person who died was an Israeli Jew killed in the port area while running for shelter.
Haifa is the third largest city in Israel, and with 270,000 residents it is the largest in the north. The municipal officials we met with told us that counting the rockets that hit the evening before, there had been 29 direct hits in Haifa to date and 45 total in the city. Thirteen people in the city had killed and 251 injured. The municipality estimated that before last night's incident that 30% of Haifa's inhabitants had fled the city, of which an approximately 15,000 are children.
During the early days of the conflict, Haifa had been hit by a number of rockets, including one that hit the railway station and killed eight employees. According to the Haifa police department the rocket that hit the Haifa train station on 16th July was the first one that they are aware of that contained the ball bearings. They estimate that the 220mm rocket was carrying around 40 kg of the ball bearings, or around 40,000 of them. Everyone nearby was either killed or badly wounded. Even though the ball bearings are everywhere, when we ask if they could give us some, they had to call to check. In the end they got permission to give us five of their closely held bearings.
Ironically, since Haifa had not been hit for a week and a half, people had just started to return to the city and businesses had started to reopen after being closed for about two weeks. The more we talked to people the more we learned about the ways the rockets had affected civilian life in ways we hadn't anticipated. For example, about 10% of the population is over 75 and many of those had home care workers, at least part time, to assist them. But most of the home health care workers had fled the city, leaving the municipality with the task of trying to provide aid to hundreds of elderly who remained.
Another problem the municipality faced, was that around 18% of the population lived under the poverty line. Most of the people who had fled the north, had done so with their own resources. Some had gone to live with relatives, some with more resources had gone to hotels, and some with even more resources had gone abroad. But in Haifa and elsewhere, many low-income residents had little option but to remain. Still, after the rocket strikes of the evening before, municipal officials believed that even more people would leave town and head south.
"The problem we have is when the sirens go off and nothing happens, people become complacent and don't seek shelter," the chief of the Haifa police department told us. "People's minds work on probability. When you hear many sirens and nothing happens to you, you think you are always going to be OK."
"The time is so short that we are trying to educate the public not to run to public shelters, but to go to the nearest safe place, or even just to lie on the ground," he said.
While we continue to try to track down detailed statistics on the exact causes of the deaths and injuries, it is clear again from our meeting with the Haifa police that the rockets packed with ball bearings are extremely deadly. We are told that in addition to the 220mm rockets, many of smaller 122mm rockets have also been modified to carry around 4 kg or 4,000 ball bearings. One person, the police told us, was killed while driving down a hill at the entrance to the town when his car was sprayed after a rocket impacted nearby.
With so many of the city's residents gone, the police have had to mobilize a large force to prevent looting. Police have also been involved in the relief effort for those residents who remained. Even as we moved around the city with the police, it was clear that more residents had left the city than were there the day before.
"I am starting to miss traffic jams," he concluded "It is hard to see a city like Haifa with no life in it."
The police chief then took us the 'bomb squad' unit in Haifa which analyses the debris of the rockets collected. We were shown fragments of the both the 122mm and 240mm Katushyas, which were laid out on the floor.. They gave each of us a bag of the ball bearings to bring back.
Meeting with Women's NGOs
In the afternoon we met with representatives of two women's organizations in the city. They told us that like in armed conflicts everywhere, women were suffering disproportionately from dealing with the effects of the conflict. One of the groups, that helps women find work, told us that since many women low-income women work cleaning and other jobs where they are paid by the day, they are running out of money, or have already run out. Day care centres, nursery schools and other facilities have been closed down, so with no where to put their children it would be hard for them to get to work in any case. About half of women living under the poverty line are single mothers.
"One of the problems these women face is that many of them are so low income they can't even afford a phone that makes out going calls, only incoming," we were told. "So we started calling all the women on our lists to see how they were doing. Many of them didn't know what services were available or where they needed to go to get help. Some went to the govt. offices to get aid and found that they were closed or were told they couldn't help them."
"We have also found that in some cases the stress of the rockets and being forced to remain indoors in the home or in and out of shelters has even had an impact on women who were victims of domestic violence," they told us. "We would call women who had succeeded with much difficulty to leave their batterers. When we would call their homes to see if they were alright and if they need anything, their batters would answer the phone."
That evening the mission joined with members of the Israeli section, who were participating in a vigil calling for an immediate ceasefire. Amnesty activists in cities all over the world held similar vigils that same evening. The Israeli section’s vigil was held in front of one of the houses in that had been hit by a rocket. Twice while we were setting up for the vigil, the air raid sirens went off and we had to run to the shelter in the nearby building.
After dark, we headed to Tel Aviv. The city was way more deserted than it had been since we arrived. We saw almost no one on the streets or driving around. Although it was about an hour or so by car, Tel Aviv felt like a different city when we drove in. All the stores and restaurants were open. People were sitting outside in cafes. Traffic was heavy. We even drove by an amusement park that had a small fireworks display. Definitely not something you would do in the north without scaring people to death.
It didn't take long though to see the effects of the war even here. The lobby of our hotel was full of people who were obviously evacuees from the north. They were clearly not on holiday. We had heard reports from people we spoke to and also in the media that many Israelis who had been staying in hotels had run out of money and had been asked to leave. In Eilat, people who were asked to leave refused and the police needed to be brought in. The media reported while that the government had brought in buses to bring people back up north, although later they began an organized evacuation of cities at the most risk like Kiryat Shmona.
Other people we spoke to told us that people who had taken in friends or relatives from the north, were also feeling the strain. Public health officials we talked to said many host families were now "crashing" under the burden of housing, feeding, and taking care of their guests with no clear end in site. Some people we spoke to had moved five or six times as a result.
Tuesday 8th August
Tuesday morning we had more meetings with government officials in the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. Mostly we talked about the IDF actions in southern Lebanon.
In the early afternoon one of our delegates was interviewed on Israeli television. The interviewer was surprised that Amnesty International was on mission to investigate human rights violations against Israelis when usually we were reporting violations committed by them. That, we replied, was exactly the point. Amnesty International judges all parties, whether governments or armed groups, by the common yardstick of international humanitarian law. Deliberately targeting civilians or firing rockets in an indiscriminate manner is a war crime, regardless of who is doing it.
Later that afternoon we went to what is probably the world's fanciest camp for internally displaced people. In the early days of the conflict, a wealthy business man who saw that the government was not taking action fast enough to set up housing for those who had been displaced decided to act on his own. On the beach near Ashkelon, he built a tent city for 6,200 people, with a paid staff of 800 employees. Evacuees lucky enough to get in before the camp reached its capacity, get a place to sleep, all meals provided, and a very nice view of the ocean.
One camp resident we spoke to told us that if they were on vacation, they would even be glad to pay to stay there, but they still wanted to go home. There is little privacy, they worry about family and friends still in the north, and they don't know when they will be able to leave. They were, however, prepared. We saw their suitcases with neatly folded children's clothes. They said that they had the hope of returning to their homes soon so they have to be ready. The family also worries about the future. They owned a small furniture workshop, but most of their orders have been cancelled. Their clients have had to spend all their money on hotels and other living expenses. They had gone first to a hotel, and then to a relatives house. When they heard about the camp they came here, where they had been for three weeks and two days.
Even in this seeming paradise the conflict is not far away. Two of the camp's residents had to be told by the camp's administration that they had lost close family members to the rockets. One woman, with 12 children lost her husband who had stayed behind in the north. The other was the mother of one of the people killed in Acre the day before we arrived.
Wednesday 9th August
In the morning the delegation splits up to try to get the maximum amount of information on our last day. Half the group went to meet with the "Homefront Command". We get more detailed statistics than we have had before. Authorities from the Home Guard tell us that to date 39 Israeli civilians had been killed, and 1,300 wounded. Twenty-nine of the injuries were severe, 57 moderate and the rest less serious. We are also told that over 50% of the population in the north, had fled. It is a figure that is hard to verify because it constantly changes, although it matches what we are hearing from other sources.
We are also told that the north has been divided into three zones for purposes of the instructions that are given to civilians on how best to protect themselves. In the cities, towns and villages furthest in north, including Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona, were told to stay in shelters all day. In that zone residents do not have enough time to reach a shelter once the rockets are spotted. In the second zone, which includes Haifa and Tiberias, residents had been told to remain in the protected spaces or in interior rooms with as few openings, windows and exterior walls as possible. The alert time in Haifa is very short. From the time the rockets are spotted and an alarm can be sounded., people have between 25-30 seconds before impact. In the third zone, residents were told to stay in their homes so they would be close to their safe rooms and the shelters in their buildings.
The other half of the group met with a former IDF official who provided more information about the rockets that had been fired into Israel. He said that according to his information, 3,343 rockets had been fired into Israel to date, with a combined payload of 72,379 kilograms. He added that 352 of these were packed with the ball bearings.
On the way to the airport we stopped at a display the IDF was putting on of the weapons they claimed they had confiscated from Hizbullah in arms caches and houses. It seemed mostly to be for the Israeli press as few of the signs were in English. Most of the weapons on display were AK47s.
We left later that evening to return to London. When we arrive the first thing we do is check the news on the internet. A five-year old boy and his 26 year old mother were killed by a rocket in the Arab village of Deir al-Assad. The boy's three year old brother and 10 other people were injured.
# 12:15 PM
Monday, August 07, 2006
Sidon, 6th August
Today we went south of Beirut to Sidon, driving past more destruction to the infrastructure caused by Israeli bombardments. A huge bomb crater pits the road at one point, and cars are forced to drive carefully in single file over the makeshift 'bridge' of metal sheets that cover the enormous hole.
Meeting displaced people
Further on, we had to make a detour around a collapsed flyover destroyed by yet another Israeli air strike.
We met internally displaced people from several villages which we visited a few days ago, including survivors of the Israeli bombardments in Marwahin, Aitaroun and Srifa.
These people are living in makeshift centres for internally displaced people, mostly schools and public buildings.
The story of Aitaroun
Israeli attacks on Aitaroun have included air strikes and artillery fire. One man told us about the killing on 17 July of 13 civilians, including nine children and five elderly people. Nine more people were killed on the following day. Some of those who have survived the attacks on Aitaroun are still in hospital, and do not know that their relatives have been killed.
No way of knowing
We also spoke to one family from the Hay Mahfara area of Srifa who left on the first day of bombing, believing they would only be away for a day or two. More than three weeks later, they do not even know whether their home still exists or if it has been destroyed, like so many others. One woman, a mother of three children, told us she has heard rumours that her home has been destroyed, but also that it is still standing. She has no way of knowing.
Another man told us how his cousins visiting from Brazil were killed in an Israeli air strike three weeks ago. The entire family was wiped out. Aqil Mara'I and his wife Ahlam Jaber, both in their 30s, and their seven-year-old son Hedi and four- year-old daughter Zainab were all killed in an attack on the three-storey building where they were staying. Their bodies remained under the rubble until the following day.
The survivors of Marwahin
We met several survivors of the killing of 25 civilians, most of them women and children, from the Marwahin village on 12 July, on the first day of the conflict. After the Israeli army called on villagers to leave hundreds of people assembled in the main square of Marwahin, home to some 3,000 people, and from there walked to the base of the UNIFIL (United Nation Interim Force in Lebanon), near the village seeking shelter but were turned away. Some of the villagers went back home, too scared to take the road out of the village, and scores of others decided to leave in a convoy of several pick up trucks and cars.
The convoy was traveling on the costal road towards the town of Tyre but it came under Israeli artillery fire and had to turn back a couple of times and then continued. When it reached the vicinity of area of al-Bayada the convoy again came under fire and the second and third vehicles, a pick up truck and a car, were hit. The first shell was apparently fired by the Israeli navy, whose ships were besieging the Lebanese coast, followed by at least two missiles fired by Israeli helicopters. All the passengers of the pick-up truck and two passengers of the car behind it were killed and several others were injured.
The passengers of the first car said that they were too afraid to stop and continued on to Tyre, where they later learned of the fate which had befallen their traveling companions. The passengers of the other vehicles returned back to the village, where they said that they lived in fear of being killed until they were able to leave in the following days. Some elderly people remained in the village and their relatives have not been able to contact them for more than three weeks because access roads to the village and the electricity network in the area have been destroyed by Israeli bombardments since the outbreak of the conflict.
The families of two elderly men said they were worried that the two men may be dead and asked if we could help to find out what has happened to them. Some of the villagers from Aitaroun also told us their wives and children are still in the village but they do not know what has happened to them, and hoped we might be able to find news of them. However, neither we nor other NGOs or journalists have any way of helping. No one can go to this or other villages as anyone travelling on the roads which lead to most of the villages in South Lebanon would be at risk from Israeli air strikes and artillery fire.
Not able to pull people out of the rubble
A young man whose mother we looked for last week in the village of Ainata, told us that he is still without news of her since the beginning of the conflict. Last week, when he heard that we were in the area of his village he asked us to go to his mother's house to find out what has happened to her. When we reached the village we found it deserted, many of its houses destroyed, including the woman's house. We could look into the first two rooms of the house but the kitchen and bathroom were completely flattened and we could not establish if she was under the rubble, as this could not be shifted without heavy machinery. However, no such equipment was available in the village and no one could be brought in. When we visited the village, during the 48-hour suspension of air strikes announced by the Israeli authorities, heavy artillery fire continued around this and other villages in the area. Since then, Israeli bombardments have resumed in full and movement in and around most villages in South Lebanon is impossible.
We also met several families from the village of Srifa, which we visited a few days ago. We did not dare to tell these families about the extent of the destruction we witnessed in the village, where scores of houses have been literally pulverized by repeated Israeli air strikes and the bodies of some of the villagers remain buried under the rubble of their homes.
# 5:57 PM
Today our mission headed further north to the city of Nahariya, which sits about five miles from the Lebanese border and is one the cities that has been hardest hit by the rockets. According to the municipality and police officials, approximately 350 rockets have hit inside the city limits and another 450 in the surrounding area. The municipality told us that two people have been killed and 68 injured in the city and estimates that over 1,000 houses have been damaged. Ordinarily Nahariya is a busy tourist town in the summer, but when we arrive it is virtually deserted.
Visiting Western Galilee Hospital
After a short briefing by the city spokesperson, we headed to the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. The hospital estimates it has treated 1,300 patients, about 65% of which were for psychological trauma. Others were more seriously injured including a storekeeper from Nahariya who lost his leg when a rocket fell near his store. The hospital had built an elaborate underground facility, including everything from a dialysis unit to an underground network of roads. The deputy director of the hospital told us they built the underground part of the hospital hoping they would never have to use it. Shortly after the war began, they were able to move many of the hospital's essential functions either underground or to safer parts of the hospital. The hills of Lebanon are clearly visible from the north facing windows.
Hospital within firing range
The hospital, did in fact sustain a direct hit. A rocket hit a patient's room a few days after the patients on that floor had been moved elsewhere. Although only one room was hit directly, all the rooms that we saw on the floor had clear signs of damage. While we were inspecting the damage, the sirens went off for the first of many times today, and we took the opportunity to look at the underground facility.
Underground we saw everything from patients getting their regular dialysis treatments, to a day care centre for the children of employees to people who had been injured. Some of the injured were older residents who fell while running to shelters including a 66- year old woman who broke her thigh when she fell down the stairs while trying to get to the shelter in her building's basement and an 84-year old woman who fell when a bomb exploded near the shelter she was in when she was trying to get to the shelter's bathroom. We also talked to a 13-year old boy who was injured in the same incident that killed five people in Acre the day before we arrived. The boy's mother said she considered that day to be his birthday, because he was born again since he was only injured and not killed in the explosion.
Among the other patients we met was a five-year-old boy from the Arab village of Maj'd al-Krum who was injured by the same missile that killed two of his uncles. He was eating ice-cream in his uncle's car when the bomb hit.
Visiting public shelters
From the hospital we went to visit some of the public shelters, where many of the cities' residents have spent the past 26 days mostly underground. The emotions of the people we spoke to ranged from resignation, to indignation, to barely suppressed rage. In the first shelter we visited, most of the people were not sleeping in the shelters since there had been fewer rockets at night, but many spent the entire day there, going out only for an hour a day to shop or run other errands. There was about 20-40 in the shelter, including around five children. We were told that the family with children was sleeping in the shelter. Several people we met told us that families with children were being much more cautious.
In the second shelter we visited, which was only one block away, the situation was much different. The shelter was "home" to around 40 people, including 10 children. Most of them had been living there 24 hours a day since the first rockets hit Nahariya on the second day of the conflict. Since they were so close to the border, they told us, that the sirens often go off after the bombs hit or simultaneously. This made many of them too afraid to step outside. One woman told us "We do everything in fear. We eat in fear, we sit in fear. We shower in fear. We sleep in fear." All of the people we spoke to in the shelter told us that their nerves were shot and rubbed raw. The main problem was that they did not know when it would end.
Update: Haifa hit by several rockets
As we were leaving Nahariya, we heard that Haifa had been hit with several rockets. We arrived shortly after the those who had been killed and injured had already been pulled from the rubble and taken to the hospital. We visited three of the sites that had been hit, including one building that had collapsed entirely, and two others that were badly damaged. Again we saw the signs of the metal marbles that we have seen at all the other sites that had been hit by the rockets.
We then headed to Rambam Hospital to try to gather information about the casualties. The hospital reported that three people had been killed and they had over 60 casualties. The other two hospitals in the city had received over 100 casualties. Most of the casualties, however, were treated for shock and released, although they were still compiling figures for the other injuries.
While we were there, they had just begun the process of evacuating over 100 patients from the oncology ward into the basement. Unlike Nahariya which had a purpose built facility, they were simply moving patients into what used to be a storage are they had airconditioned on an emergency basis. The maternity ward and the pediatric intensive care had been moved earlier. These facilities all used to have a view of the ocean facing north. In the past this had provided patients with what was thought was a restful view to help with the healing process. With the recent round of missiles hitting the city, the circumstances, we were told, it had simply become too dangerous.
# 5:48 PM
Sunday, August 06, 2006
The last two nights have seen some of the heaviest bombardment of Beirut. More civilian infrastructure has been destroyed. Today we visited
Baalbak in the Beqaa valley.
Beqaa Valley, 5th August
We drove up to the Beqaa Valley town of Baalbak today, about 150 km east of Beirut and famous for its ruins of Roman temples. At about 10 am, as we were passing by the village of Hilanya, there was an Israeli air strike on a fuel truck outside a small garage on the main road, setting the truck ablaze. Thick black smoke rose above the flames as the traffic was diverted and villagers hurried away from the main road and from the burning truck.
Repeated Israeli air strikes on the town have forced close to 80% of the population of Baalbak – some 120,000 - to flee. Entire neighbourhoods and suburbs are now totally deserted. Clothes hang from washing lines and cats scurry around the streets but most of the residents have left in the past two weeks. We drove through eerily silent neighbourhood after neighbourhood.
Baalbak City, 5th August
Several neighbourhoods in Baalbak have been totally destroyed by repeated Israeli bombardments. Whole blocks of houses have been reduced to lumps of rubble. Several residents have been killed in such attacks and as a result the remaining inhabitants have been forcibly displaced by the fear of such attacks. The families have moved elsewhere, flooding other cities and towns. At least 800,000 of people have been forcibly displaced from their homes by the frequent Israeli bombardments, and a country with a population of less than 4 million is struggling to cope. Some have fled to neighbouring Syria or to other countries, but hundreds of thousands are sleeping in schools and public parks.
In Baalbak we heard from eyewitnesses, including medical doctors, about how an entire family was wiped out in an Israeli air strike. During the night of 1 and 2 August, a family of agricultural workers, a husband and wife and four of their children, aged between three and fifteen were killed, and their other three children, aged from nine months to nine years, were seriously wounded, when Israeli forces launched scores of missiles into several areas of Baalbak. In the same night the air strikes killed several other people, including a pregnant woman and two children in a nearby neighbourhood.
We later investigated the reported killings of at least 23 agricultural workers in an Israeli air strike on 4 August (yesterday) on the village of al-Qaa, North of Baalbak. A local priest told us that he witnessed the air strike from the roof of his church compound. He said that as he was preparing to leave to go to the scene of the attack to offer assistance another missile hit the same farm. He rushed there and found that at least 23 Syrian agricultural workers, including at least five women, had been killed and several others injured.
# 8:43 PM
Northern District, 5th August
On the second day of our mission, we started the day in by meeting with the director of health services for the Northern District. She is responsible for coordinating health services for approximately 1,200,000 residents, which she says is split equally between Jewish and Arab residents. Later in the day we met with the director of the mayor's office in lower Nazareth.
She explained that main difference between this conflict and ones in the past, was that many Israeli cities, towns and villages that had never been hit before by rockets were being hit for the first time. This has meant that people were not prepared, and a major impact from a public health perspective has been from people experiencing psychological trauma and anxiety. They were also helping people cope with the psychological effects of being in or in and out of shelters for 25 straight days. They had learned from past experience in dealing with trauma victims that the earlier counseling was provided the lower the long term effects were so they were trying to provide counseling to victims as soon as they could.
While the government has been trying to get as many people as possible to evacuate, many are unable or unwilling to leave. And in many cases evacuating people who were elderly or with major health problems presented logistical challenges. The government mobilized ambulances, physicians, and paramedics to move people to safety, but we were told that two elderly patients still died while being transported to safer parts of the country. According to the health ministry, about 2/3 of the populations of the population had fled from the Northern District.
For the population that is left, in addition to providing psychological services, they were dealing with the challenges of trying to provide the same basic health services they were providing in the past as well as additional health challenges presented by the civilians living in the shelters. Even with mobilizing all of its resources the authorities were only able to visit a small percentage of the shelters to make a health assessment. In cities like Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona which had been particularly hard hit, trying to provide services like chemotherapy and kidney dialysis was straining hospitals and other facilities already coping with people who had been injured.
Nazareth, North Israel, 5th August
We then went to Nazereth which is the largest Arab city in Israel. Two children had been killed in Nazareth while playing outside in the early days of the conflict. We were told that at the time there were no sirens functioning, so the children, young brothers who were outside their home playing, had no warning. The municipality representative told us that even if they had heard a siren, shelters in Arab areas are virtually non-existent, although the reasons behind this is something we need to continue to follow up on. In Nazareth most of the population has not left, although some of the more affluent residents had fled. About 50% of the population lives below the poverty line.
We also met with representatives of two women's groups who were helping Arab women deal with the conflict. In addition to dealing with their own stress over the rockets falling on Nazareth and nearby, they were also responsible for caring for their families. Since none of the nursery schools or kindergartens had shelters or safe rooms, they had to be closed down.
On our way out of town the sirens went off again. This time there was no were no formal shelters, but we were invited by local shopkeepers into a backroom that had no windows and was relatively safe. But the majority of the people nearby just looked at the sky. Today, the media reported that three more Israelis, all Arabs, were killed. Yesterday, reports stated that three Israelis were killed and today three more were killed. All of the those who have died since we have arrived have been Israeli Arabs.
Clearly the Israeli health and other services are pressed to their maximum to cope with the conflict, and that is with their infrastructure still in place. We wondered what the other half of our delegation was finding in Lebanon, where most of the infrastructure had been destroyed.
# 8:40 PM
Saturday, August 05, 2006
In village after village, we saw a similar story: evidence of families leaving quickly, abandoning food and laundry as though they didn't expect to be away for long. The bodies of people killed in their homes in several villages are still under the rubble. In some villages the stench of rotting corpses is unbearable. Roaming dogs often offer an indication of where the bodies are buried.
South Lebanon , 31 July-1 August
Several corpses were removed during the 48-hour air strike suspension announced by the Israeli authorities. In some areas the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Lebanese Red Cross could not reach places where the bodies lay, because there were no guarantees from the Israeli military that they would be safe.
It was left to journalists to pull bodies from the rubble and carry them on doors to ambulances waiting in less exposed areas. Three journalists in Bin Jbail told us how they had carried bodies, and had also found a distressed woman digging with her bare hand and pleading with them to help her find her sister under the rubble of a demolished house - she had not been able to approach the house before because of the continuous Israeli fire in the area. They helped her and eventually found two elderly women, one of them disabled and bed-ridden, and an elderly man alive under the rubble. The disabled woman had been soiling herself after days in her bed and her brother had had to tie her hands because she was biting them and ripping her skin.
In Srifa, where during the night of 18-19 July some 15 people were killed in their homes, we saw a head sticking out of the rubble of a demolished house; the body was entirely trapped under heavy rubble which could not be moved without heavy machinery which is not available in the village. Several other bodies remain but cannot be reached at all.
In several villages, we gathered many stories about the impact of this conflict on people's daily lives:
Supermarkets have been destroyed seemingly as part of the drive to force out remaining villagers who had remained in spite of having been cut off from outside supplies.
Electricity lines were destroyed in the first attacks, so people were cut off from the outside world as they could not recharge their mobile phones. The few places with landlines - hospitals, some municipal buildings - found them cut early on.
All along the way to south Lebanon, petrol stations were shelled from the first few days and as trucks have been the target of air strikes from the outset, it has become impossible for fuel supplies to reach petrol stations in villages. The lack of fuel is an acute problem, making it difficult and in many cases impossible for villagers to leave, and for those wishing to remain to get outside supplies. Any remaining petrol supplies are very expensive.
People are afraid to travel on the roads, and not just in the South. Even just outside Beirut, those who do get on the road are terrified of being anywhere near trucks, even small trucks, as these have been particularly targeted. Drivers take additional risks to overtake and get away from trucks as fast as they can - even open trucks carrying fruit and vegetables - as they are seen as likely targets.
The massive and rapid displacement of people from their villages in the south and the difficult or impossible communication links between those in the southern villages and the outside world have made it difficult to help the internally displaced people, or even to know who has gone where and when.
Hospitals and other centres are completely overwhelmed. Relatives of southern villagers who are elsewhere in the country are panicked. They told us that they have no means of getting news of their relatives in the South, and have not been able to go there due to the danger of road travel.
Without telephone or TV, news had travelled mainly through journalists, humanitarian workers and others who have been moving between villages, but families in more isolated house have been completely cut off, terrified to stay, and terrified to leave.
# 1:26 PM
Arriving in Tel Aviv, 4th August
The mission arrived in Tel Aviv and headed straight up to north to Haifa. The day we left had one of the highest civilian death tolls in Israel since the conflict began three weeks ago so we were expecting the situation to be tense.
From Haifa, the first stop on our agenda was visiting the city of Carmiel. Driving through Haifa on our way to Carmiel we could see several buildings that had been damaged in recent rocket attacks. Usually on a Friday morning both Carmiel and Haifa would be bustling with people doing their shopping for the Sabbath. But we were all very surprised at how quiet they were, Carmiel in particular was virtually empty of people on the streets.
We met up with people from the Carmiel municipality who took us to see several houses that had been hit by Hizbullah rockets. In the first house we visited, a rocket had came through the roof of one apartment and went through the floor to the apartment below. Luckily no one was home at the time on the top floor and no one was seriously injured below. Both apartments are currently uninhabitable.
The municipality estimates that 30% of the population have left the city. The way they have been trying to measure the number of people who were still there and who have left is by counting the number of trash bins that are empty and those that are full. The municipality, as other municipalities throughout the country, are working to provide basic services to those residents who are spending most of their times in shelters or afraid to leave their homes. When we pulled up to the building there were over a dozen volunteers packing up meals to deliver to people who were still in the city. They estimated they provided food to about 2,500 people per day.
From Carmiel we moved on to Acre, where again we met with people from the municipality. Acre is a mixed city with a large Israeli Arab population (Palestinian citizens of Israel). Acre was even more deserted than Carmiel, because the day before five people had died when they left their shelter prematurely.
We were told that two of the people who died were killed by small steel balls that have been packed into the rocket's warhead. In addition to killing and injuring many civilians, everywhere we saw places where rockets had hit we saw evidence of these still balls, with walls, windows, and even steel fences damaged and often with the steel balls still embedded.
Most of the sites where rockets have hit have been cleaned up and repaired, but we were able to visit a kindergarten that had been hit, although again luckily no children were there at the time.The soundtrack for the day was the sound of air raid sirens and rockets.
Over 10 times during the day we had to seek shelter when the air raid sirens went off, including three times while driving where the only thing we could do was pull over quickly and do the best we could to lay low.
Across from the kindergarten we met an 85 -year-old woman who spent most of her time sitting right outside the shelter because she was blind and unable to make it up and downstairs every time the sirens went off.
We did hear reports that in many Arab neighborhoods the air raids sirens either aren't working or aren't present.
For us, it was just one day, but many Israelis have been living like this for weeks.
# 1:15 PM