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Lebanon Diary: Fleeing Bint Jbeil

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"Bint Jbeil is all gone," said Hala Abou Alawi . "It's destroyed." Abou Alawi is a dentist assistant in Bint Jebel, a usually charming mountain town just less than 3 miles from the Israeli border. Before the war, its winding central street transformed into a bustling souk, or market, on Saturdays. Local artists read stories to schoolchildren in the community center.

Now, according to Abou Alawi and other refugees from the area, it's a ghost town. She fled with her two sisters this morning after the shelling grew particularly intense. She said they walked for four hours "with the clothes on our backs" but her other two sisters eventually fell behind. She is now frantic to find out what happened to them.

The Israelis have been bombing much of southern Lebanon, but Bint Jbeil — which commands a strategic height — has been a scene of intense shelling. Residents have been forced to flee to the town of Tibnine, southeast of Tyre, where they're holed up in the city's hospital. "Most of the houses have been destroyed," said Abou Alawi, describing how she ran from house to house as the Israelis bombed structure after structure.

Getting to Bint Jbeil is too dangerous for reporters at this point, and it's impossible to verify the extent of the damage, but several residents of Bint Jbeil told similar stories.

I joined up with a group of journalists traveling to Tibnine today after the Lebanese Red Cross announced a bread delivery run to a couple of villages on the way. The route is very dangerous, said Qassim Chalaan, a driver and training manager at the Red Cross headquarters in Tyre. He said he could not be responsible for our safety, and indeed, word reached us through huddled phone calls that the Israelis could not guarantee that they wouldn't strike our convoy.

That possibility was a real fear. On Sunday night, Israeli missiles struck two ambulances as they rendezvoused in Qana, about 12 miles southeast of Tyre. It's a meeting place for the Red Cross drivers, who take wounded from surrounding villages at Qana to Tyre. Chalaan was one of the drivers on Sunday and his ambulance was struck just as he finished putting three wounded people into the Tyre-bound ambulance. Moments later, the second, an empty ambulance, was struck. The three civilians — a mother, her son and his five-year-old child — were seriously injured, with the son losing his right lower leg. The Red Cross medics were lightly wounded.

Today, as we passed through Qana following the Lebanese Red Cross, we saw the two ambulances in the middle of a wide street. As twisted and blackened as they were, it was still possible to see they were white Volkswagen minivans clearly marked with a blue emergency light and red crosses on their roofs.

As we stopped to take pictures, two Israeli jets buzzed low around us, and we all scrambled for shelter in the lee of buildings away from our own cars. They were so close we could see the desert camouflage markings on them.

Thankfully, they left us unmolested, but the road to Tibnine is tense and dangerous. The multiple cratersŚmany with the wreckage of cars still at their bottomŚare a stark reminder that the Israelis can deal death from the sky at any time. We passed two other burned-out cars, mattresses and family baggage bulging out of the trunks as a result of blasts. The interiors were completely burned and it seems unlikely the inhabitants could have possibly survived.

Once we got to the hospital, I met Abou Alawi, along with many others. At least 1,350 refugees are crammed into the small hospital, according to the Lebanese Red Cross and hospital employees. Their stories are a litany of fear, flight and desperation.

Suadi Chibli, 45, an Egyptian nurse was in the village of Qawni visiting family when the war broke out. She and her four children, ages 13 to 22, walked for four hours on the main roads, white flags held aloft, to get to the hospital in Tibnine. She is reluctant to tell more of her story because her husband, who is in Kuwait, thinks the family is in Beirut and she doesn't want to worry him. She began to cry, however, as she begged for transportation north. "We just want a car to get out of here to Beirut," she said.

The hospital in Tibnine is woefully under equipped to deal with such an influx of people. "Nobody cares about us!" yelled Kamil Mustafa, 50, a baker from the village of Ainata. "Nobody is asking about us, nobody cares!" There was no food or water at the hospital, he said. The refugees all complained that no one had come to help them — not even Hizballah, with its vaunted social services, from which it derives a great deal of its loyalty among poor Shi'ites.

But Hizballah was spared most of their wrath. "The Americans are the ones who are killing us," Mustafa said.