Where No One Is Safe

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With Israeli helicopter gunships and jets regularly pouncing from the blue sky to attack vehicles, only the desperate or brave travel south Lebanon's narrow twisting roads.

Most of them are civilians fleeing the villages that dot the hills southeast of here, heading north for the relative safety of the port town of Tyre, or further up the coast beyond the Litani river. But some vehicles head the other way — straight into the killing zone that south Lebanon has become since Israel's onslaught against Lebanese Hizballah guerrillas began 13 days ago. These are the ambulances of the Lebanese Red Cross, driven by fearless young men and women volunteers who risk their lives each day to ferry casualties from villages cut off by shelling and bomb cratered roads.

"We have a protection because we are the Red Cross so we can reach villages where others can't go," says Sami Yazbek, chief of the Tyre Red Cross department. But on Sunday night, the emblem of the Red Cross was not enough to deter an Israeli helicopter gunship from firing missiles into a pair of ambulances loading casualties in the village of Qana, six miles southeast of Tyre, wounding an already injured family of three along with all six paramedics.

One of the ambulances, driven by Qassem Shaalan, had left Tyre at around 10 p.m., having arranged to meet another ambulance coming from Tibnine, some 15 miles away, at Qana, which lies between the two towns. The Tibnine ambulance was carrying three people, a husband and wife and their 14-year-old son. All three had been injured in Israeli artillery shelling around Tibnine and their condition was sufficiently serious to dispatch them to hospital in Tyre. It took Shaalan about 15 minutes to reach Qana, having steered his ambulance around the numerous bomb craters in the road. As usual, the ambulance's lights were on full-beam, the internal light also was on, the revolving blue light was flashing on the roof and the Red Cross flag was lit up. Shaalan wanted everyone to know he was there.

The two ambulances stopped next to each other in the middle of the road, engines running and lights still blazing away. The swap only took two minutes — both Red Cross crews had done this before and the whine of a drone and rumble of passing Israeli jets overhead were further incentives for haste.

As Shaalan closed the back of the ambulance, however, a missile punched through the roof of the vehicle and exploded inside. "There was a boom, a big fire and I was thrown backwards. I thought I was dead," Shaalan recalls. He opened his eyes and checked himself to see if he was hurt. One of his colleagues, Nader Joudi, was standing, but the third member of the team, Mohammed Hassan, was unconscious. One of the Tibnine medics put through an emergency call to the Red Cross operations room in Tyre that they were under attack. Then a second missile struck the other ambulance. Hassan started regaining consciousness as the medics, all of them hurt, hauled the family out of the back of the ambulance and carried them into a neighboring building. Several more missiles exploded on the road and around the building. The two adults and the boy were lucky to survive, but all had received more wounds. The father's leg was severed by the exploding missile and he was losing blood fast.

"The family was very badly hurt," Joudi says. They had to wait an hour and a half for the rescue ambulances to arrive, the time it took for the Red Cross in Geneva to contact the Israeli authorities and request safe passage to evacuate the wounded.The 50-strong Red Cross team in Tyre has had several narrow escapes since the war began — one of their ambulances was almost blown up by a missile fired from an Israeli jet. But Joudi admits he was surprised that they were attacked in such a flagrant fashion. "We have had near misses but they have never targeted us before," he says.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli authorities on why a helicopter gunship had attacked a clearly marked Red Cross ambulance. "We had all the lights on, the blue light was flashing and we had a light on the flag. There's no way that they could not see that we were Red Cross," Shaalan says.

But for these brave young men and women, a close call with an Israeli missile was not enough to make them stay at home. They spent the night in hospital but checked out in the morning.

"I took off my bandages before I went to visit my mother. She kissed the ground when she saw me," Shaalan says. By the afternoon, Shaalan and his two colleagues from Tyre were back in their orange jumpsuits and reporting once more for duty.