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Lebanon / Israel

Monday, August 07, 2006

Lebanon mission: update 3

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.
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