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Lebanon / Israel

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lebanon mission: update 4
Monday 7th August

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 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.
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