Abandoning the Dead, and Living, in Lebanon

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Lebanese women cry over coffins for the deceased after ten days of Israeli bombings in Southern Lebanon

As a carpenter labors in the sweltering noon heat to complete his melancholy task, his newly made coffins lie stacked up six high and stretch down the hospital courtyard. The simple pine coffins have been hammered together to receive the bodies of 86 people killed in eight days of Israeli air strikes and artillery bombardments that are part of its campaign against Hizballah. "I built 20 last night and another 10 this morning," says Fadi Salem, pausing a moment from his backbreaking work.

With Hizballah showing more signs of tenacity than expected, the Israeli military issued warnings on Thursday for all residents remaining in south Lebanon to leave their homes and move north of the Litani River, which runs about 25 miles north of the border with Israel. But for far too many people, the warnings came too late.

The southern hinterland beyond Tyre has become a killing zone. Here the dead lie under the rubble of houses destroyed in air strikes and the wounded die in the streets for lack of medical attention. Almost all the roads that criss-cross the hills and valleys of the south have been heavily cratered from multiple air strikes, making them impassable. Even United Nations peacekeepers with their armored personnel carriers have abandoned the effort to resupply or evacuate residents of southern villages because of the conditions of the roads and the Israeli shelling and air strikes. "We are in close contact with the Israelis to request safe passage but their answer has not been forthcoming," says Milos Strugar, senior advisor to the UN force, known as UNIFIL.

Lebanese Red Cross volunteers, young men and women who regularly venture out to the beleaguered villages to rescue casualties, retrieve bodies and hand out whatever medicines and food they can muster, say that starving dogs abandoned by their owners are beginning to eat the dead.

Sami Yazbek, chief of the Lebanese Red Cross in Tyre, claims that even his clearly marked white-and-orange ambulances have been attacked by Israeli missile fire, which blow up the road yards in front of their vehicles. The unrelenting pressure to bring aid to the stranded villagers is beginning to take a psychological toll on his team of 50 volunteers. Distraught civilians in outlying villages constantly call in for help, Yazbek says, but often there is nothing the Red Cross can do. "We hear them pleading on the phone and we can't help but cry. It's very stressful for the guys," he says.

Compared to the rest of south Lebanon, Tyre has been a place of relative safety. It suffered only one air strike, which struck a 12-story apartment building, pancaking the top three floors and killing over 20 people, some of whose bodies remain trapped and unreachable in the debris.

But few residents of Tyre are taking any chances. They are heeding the Israeli military warnings, which were relayed via the Voice of the South radio station, once run by Israel's Lebanese militia allies in the 1980s and 1990s before it went off the air in 2000; Israel appears to have resurrected the station specifically for the current military campaign. The Israelis also are using more unorthodox methods of conveying their warning — SMS text messages and recorded voice messages to local officials. Hassan Dbouk, who works with Tyre's municipality, says he received an early morning phone call on his landline and heard a voice say "This is the Israeli Army. We are about to increase our military operations in south Lebanon and you are advised to leave immediately to north of the Litani." "I'm staying," Dbouk says.

He is the exception. Hundreds of cars, with fluttering white sheets tied to the roof and crammed with people, took the northbound coastal route toward the Litani River, a perilous journey given the bomb-cratered condition of the road and the possibility of Israeli air strikes. By the weekend more than 75% of this 100,000-strong town were estimated to have fled.

Even the Christian quarter at the tip of Tyre's promontory that juts into the dark blue Mediterranean has emptied. The small stone Maronite and Catholic churches have closed. Families lugged heavy suitcases along the quarter's narrow alleyways to their cars, arguing about what to take and leave. Those elderly residents who refuse to leave sat on their doorsteps sipping tiny cups of coffee and glumly watching their neighbors flee. For them, and anyone else who chooses to stay, the future looks especially grim; even if they can escape the attacks, they face the prospect of being cut off from the rest of the country, with gradually dwindling supplies of food, bottled drinking water, medicines and fuel.

That mood of despair is shared by Tyre's local government, which has found itself confronting a catastrophe that dwarfs its meager capabilities. A crowd of anxious people throng the reception area of the municipality's offices, begging for food handouts and bottled water. "There's nothing for them. We have no supplies," says Hassan Al-Husseini, the mayor, bitterly.

Other officials blame the Lebanese government, asking why Caritas, a Christian charity, managed to dispatch five trucks of food from Beirut to Tyre in the previous week, while the government has sent nothing.

The sense of abandonment is compounded by the evacuation from Tyre port over the last few days of foreign nationals, tourists trapped in the town by the war or families of UNIFIL staffers. "If there were any signs of hope, then the foreigners would not have left," says Louai Chaaban bleakly.

Back at the hospital, the bodies wrapped in blankets and plastic sheets and bound tight with tape are lowered from a refrigerated truck into the carpenter Salem's pine coffins. Some of the bagged bodies are pathetically small — hospital officials say that over half of them are children. Other coffins are filled with several shopping bags, all that remains of some of the victims. The bodies had been stored in a makeshift morgue — a refrigerated meat transport truck brought from Tripoli in northern Lebanon at the outset of the war in anticipation of many fatalities. But the corpses are rotting and the local population began to complain. More ominously, hospital officials say they may need the space for what might come next.