Surveying the Damage in Bint Jbeil

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After nearly three weeks trapped in basements listening to the fighting raging over their heads, the survivors of the fierce battle in this hill town emerge into the sunlight and stare at the desolation around them. The heart of their usually thriving market town has been turned into rubble and bomb craters. "I don't want to talk. I just want to get out," says one woman as she stumbles across the carpet of shattered masonry that covers what is left of the high street.

An Israeli decision to suspend air operations for 48 hours to allow civilians to leave the stricken towns and villages along the border has given the few remaining residents of this besieged town a brief window to escape the horrors of the battle that engulfed them. The old, frail and sick left their basement shelters, some crawling through the collapsed ruins of the bombed houses above them to pick their way carefully over a field of foot-thick debris that littered the streets. Barely a building remained standing. Some had been reduced to deep craters when struck by massive aerial bombs dropped by Israeli jets. Others had lost the top stories, destroyed in the intense artillery barrages and multiple air strikes. The facades of surviving buildings were pockmarked with shrapnel. The air reeked of smoke and the chemical smell of explosives.

Bint Jbeil was a prime target for the Israeli army. The largest Shi'a town in the border district, Bint Jbeil is populated with staunch supporters of Hizballah, whose fighters are battling Israeli forces. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's secretary-general, gave his victory speech here in May 2000 after Hizballah succeeded in driving Israeli troops out of their occupation zone in south Lebanon. Then, Nasrallah had described Israel as being as weak as a spider's web. Yet while Hizballah's anti-tank-missile-wielding guerrillas had inflicted high casualties on the attacking Israelis, the battle had left the town in ruins.

"How do we rebuild from this?" asks Sayyed Ali Hakim, a Shi'a cleric dressed in a long light brown tunic, leaning on his cane as he sat on a shaded sidewalk for a rest. He had shared the basement of his old traditional stone house with 70 other people, mainly family. The building above them was destroyed in the fighting and the terrified people hiding below were forced to ration food and water and sit it out. "It was a nightmare," he says. Similar tales are told by other survivors as they slowly trickle out of the underground refuges and make their way toward the Lebanese Red Cross ambulances parked on the entrance of the smashed central area, waiting to take them to a hospital in the nearby town of Tibnine. Some are too weak to walk, so reporters set aside notebooks and cameras and carry them to safety using doors or blankets as stretchers.

Not only the beleaguered survivors of Bint Jbeil were leaving. Throughout the border district, families were getting out, those who had found themselves cut off in isolated villages or gambled on staying in their homes rather than risking their lives by traveling the bomb-cratered and still dangerous roads. Cars, minibuses, even tractors towing trailers crammed with people waving white sheets surged along the border roads, taking advantage of the brief respite in the bombing and fighting. "This is our one opportunity. They gave us 24 hours and we are taking it," says Adnan Shabi from the small village of Teir Harfa. He says that his family were trapped in their home for 20 days while Israeli jets bombed and strafed the area around the village. "We were cut off from the world," he says.

U.N. peacekeepers deployed in south Lebanon, known by the acronym UNIFIL, dispatch convoys of trucks and armored personnel carriers carrying essential humanitarian supplies to isolated villages. Yet although Israel said it was ceasing air operations for a 48-hour period, it did not call a halt to fighting on the ground or to air support expressly to support those ground troops. A white Mercedes races down the road, the driver waving his hand out of the window, motioning this reporter to stop. "The Israelis are shelling the road between Aitta Shaab and Rmeish," he says breathlessly, referring to two villages a few miles ahead. UNIFIL confirms that 10 artillery rounds struck the road.

The Israeli military, it seems, are discouraging anyone from reaching Bint Jbeil from the western direction. There was more shelling coming from the direction of Taibe, a hill village to the northeast that has become the focus of a new Israeli ground incursion. A loud blast that carries on the hot wind marks an air strike, as jets provide cover to troops fighting Hizballah on the ground.

Monday evening Hizballah announces it has struck a second Israeli navy ship with a missile since the war began, this one off the coast of Tyre in south Lebanon. Curious residents gaze out into the Mediterranean as the sun sinks below the horizon to the west, trying, unsuccessfully, to catch a glimpse of smoke or fire. Still, the lull has encouraged a few optimists in Tyre to hope it might turn into a cease-fire. But realists listen to Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert's speech, in which he rejects a cease-fire, and know from bitter experience that the fighting will likely resume soon.