A humanitarian disaster appears to be unfolding among the hills and valleys of south Lebanon, where for five days Israel has hammered home a devastating onslaught against Lebanon's Hizballah guerrillas, a campaign that Israel says must end with the crushing of the Shi'ite group's military capabilities.
"This is terror. There are no red lines. They are shooting at ambulances on the road preventing them from coming here," says a distraught Mona Mrowe, an administrator at the Jabel Amel hospital in Tyre, her voice sounding shrill with tension and anger. "I have felt death very close. Yesterday was really ...." Her voice trails off into silence.
On Sunday the war came to Tyre; most of the city's population, upon hearing the news that Hizballah rockets had struck the Israeli port city of Haifa, 18 miles south of the border, sought refuge in the basements of apartment blocks. "It was terrifying," says Mohammed Awayni, 23. "We spent all day in the basement. We could hear the explosions shaking the buildings."
The air raids struck targets on the edges of the city around the Palestinian refugee camps of Bourj Shemali and Al-Bass. But one missile plowed into a 12-story apartment block housing the offices of the Lebanese civil defense, killing 20 people. Monday night, the city reverberated to the boom of air strikes every few minutes while Israeli helicopter gunships clattered off the coast and reconnaissance drones whined overhead.
South Lebanon is no stranger to bloodshed and violence. The last time Israel launched a punishing offensive against its Hizballah enemies was in April 1996 with Operation Grapes of Wrath. In that two-week campaign of air strikes, some 170 Lebanese civilians were killed. But that grim figure was reached after only five days of Operation Just Desserts, and the evidence of the destruction wrought on this hilly region of citrus orchards, tobacco fields and olive groves can be found in the teeming corridors of the Jabel Amel hospital.
"This is much worse than 1996," says Doctor Ahmad Mrowe, the director of the hospital. "Back then we were receiving old people and resistance fighters. This time it's almost all women and children. We haven't seen one resistance man," he adds, referring to Hizballah guerrillas. He said that the hospital has received 196 casualties, including 25 dead. "We don't need democracy," he says. "We just want to live." The basement of the hospital is packed with casualties and their anxious relatives who have fled their homes from neighboring villages to sleep on thin mattresses in the corridors.
United Nations peacekeepers (known by their acronym of UNIFIL) deployed along Lebanon's border with Israel describe the area as an Israeli free-fire zone, with any vehicle traveling along the roads at risk. On Friday, 16 residents of the tiny border hamlet of Marwahine, 12 miles from the coast, were killed when an Israeli helicopter rocketed their convoy, destroying two vehicles as they fled for the relative safety of Tyre. The next day, a UNIFIL relief column which was attempting to rescue beleaguered residents of Marwahine and nearby villages came under Israeli shellfire, with 12 155mm rounds exploding nearby. A peacekeeper who was on the convoy tells TIME that body-armored U.N. soldiers threw themselves on top of the villagers to protect them from flying shrapnel. On Monday, 20 residents of Aitaroun near the border were reported killed in two seperate strikes on their homes.
The intensity of the conflict has prevented UNIFIL from dispatching more humanitarian convoys, although Milos Strugar, UNIFIL's senior advisor, says that they intend to send them out anyway."We are doing the best we can under the circumstances," he tells TIME.
Much of the destruction has occurred out of sight of the international media. Before last week, it took little less than an hour to reach Tyre from Beirut, a speedy cruise down the coastal highway past the banana plantations and orange groves that fill the narrow littoral wedged between the Mediterranean sea and the Lebanese mountains. Not any more. After Israel's onslaught against Lebanon began last Wednesday, the southern portion of the country was quickly sealed off after all the bridges crossing the Litani river, which runs across much of southern Lebanon, were destroyed and roads cratered, making them impassable.
What was happening behind that impenetrable cordon of destruction reached Beirut mainly as rumors. Even reaching the area just north of the Litani was fraught with hazard. Leaflets dropped on Beirut by Israeli aircraft on Monday morning warned Lebanese to avoid traveling along the roads north of Sidon, the seaport midway between Beirut and Tyre. That necessitated an arduous and time-consuming detour high up in the cloud-smothered Chouf mountains, complicated Monday by the choking line of northbound vehicles carrying tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence further south.
But by the time the winding road descends into the chalky hills around the southern Lebanese market town of Nabatieh, the roads have cleared of all vehicles. Indeed, the ramshackle villages with their litter-strewn streets appear deserted. Occasionally one or two people are seen, sitting in plastic chairs on the side of the road, chatting and smoking cigarettes. The shops, however are all closed. And high above is the incessant, threatening rumble of Israeli jets and the irritating whine of reconnaissance drones.
An unnerving drive along a narrow road that bends and dips into the Litani valley eventually leads to a dusty causeway, constructed within the previous 24 hours, which crosses the river. It is a single lifeline connecting south Lebanon to the rest of the world, a fragile means of escape for despairing and frightened southerners and an entry point for reporters eager to see firsthand this most recent outbreak of ancient history.