Unburying the Dead in Qana

  • Share
  • Read Later
The boy could have been no more than five years old, his limbs flopping lifelessly as the two sweating rescue workers carried him across the rubble to a waiting stretcher. The grey dust and earth that matted his hair and caked his body had dulled his bright orange shorts and T-shirt. He was the eighth victim to be extracted from the horrific tomb of earth, sand and rubble in the past half hour, and the fifth child under the age of 12.

"The bodies are all rigid and huddled up against a wall," says Ghazi Idibi, 32, a neighbour of Abbas Hashem, whose three-story unfinished home on the outskirts of Qana was destroyed early Sunday morning by two aerial bombs dropped by an Israeli jet. The house, a typical simple Lebanese structure of reinforced cement and cinder blocks, had provided shelter for 10 days to 53 people, mainly women and small children, drawn from the extended Hashem and Shalhoub families. Only eight people survived the air strike, the rest buried beneath rubble and dirt, and suffocating to death, according to the Lebanese Red Cross, if they had survived the concussion of the double blast.

Qana was once famous in Lebanon as the site of the biblical wedding feast where Jesus turned water into wine. But in the past 10 years, this meandering hill village has become synonymous with bloodshed and misery. In April 1996, during  Israeli "Grapes of Wrath" campaign to destroy Hizballah guerrillas, Israeli artillery gunners shelled a United Nations base in the village, killing more than 100 civilians sheltering there. The cemetery where the victims are buried has become a national shrine, and it lies barely five minutes walk from the crushed ruins of the Hashem house.

"We were asleep and we woke up to bombs falling on us," says Noor Hashem, 13, a niece of Abbas Hashem, speaking from a bed in the government-run hospital in Tyre, six miles northwest of Qana. Noor, who wears a brown headscarf, says she had been sleeping beside her older sister Zeinab and a cousin. They fled the shattered building and ran to her aunt's house nearby where they waited six hours before the rescue services could reach them. Her mother went to look for her three brothers — Mahdi, 7, Jaafar, 12, and Abbas, nine months — and Noor says she has not seen them since. She begins crying and cannot continue talking. "Her brothers are dead," confides Mohammed Shalhoub, a disabled 41-year-old who also survived the explosion. "She doesn't know yet. Nobody has told her."

The rescue workers toiled under a roasting sun to extract the dead from inside the building. The victims had sheltered on the ground floor in the belief that a large pile of dirt and sand for construction would help protect them from air raids and shelling. But the earth had become their grave when they were buried beneath it by the force of the explosions. Two soldiers cautiously used spades to dig away the dirt. What was left of the building teetered heavily to one side and looked as if it would collapse at any moment.

"We need machines to clear this," says a Lebanese civil defense worker. "Let the so-called civilized Americans and Europeans come and remove the bodies," says Mohsen Rida, 38, a neighbor. "Let Hosni Mubarak come and see this, him and George Bush," he adds, referring to the president of Egypt. Anger in Lebanon at the perceived inability or reluctance of the West and leading Arab states to push for a ceasefire is growing stronger by the day. As word spread of the new massacre in Qana, hundreds of rioters attacked the gleaming glass UN building in downtown Beirut, storming the entrance and tearing up the blue UN flag. Even as the bodies were pulled out of the building one by one, Israeli jets continued to fly overhead, striking targets elsewhere, the thump of explosions carrying on the hot breeze. Residents were at a loss to understand why their neighborhood, known as Khreibe, had been so heavily hit. At least four other houses were destroyed by Israeli jets, piles of grey rubble marking where the two- or three-story structures had once existed. "There is no resistance here, they are fighting Israeli soldiers on the border. There are only civilians here, women and children," says Ibrahim Shalhoub, 26, another of the survivors who was helping recover bodies. Israel, for its part, claimed Sunday that Hizballah had been firing rockets for the last few days from Qana.

In the hospital in Tyre, Mohammed Shalhoub breaks down in tears as he answers a flurry of phone calls from friends and relatives. His six-year-old daughter, Zeinab, his brother, Tayseer, and his sister, Fatmeh, were killed. His wife, Rabab, and four-year-old son, Hassan, survived and were being treated in another hospital. A former student of Islam, Mohammed says that his faith will sustain him. "We believe in God. We have a history of sacrifice and martyrdom," he says. In 1996, the massacre at the UN base in Qana galvanized the West to arrange a ceasefire. But few residents here appear to hold out much hope that the fighting will end soon, blaming the US for its support for Israel's onslaught against Hizballah. "They talk about a new Middle East," Mohammed says. "We saw what they meant by that in Iraq and now we are seeing it in Lebanon."