Lebanon Diary: A Mass Exodus

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Travelling through south Lebanon these days is like wandering through the end of the world. Villages and hamlets that were once thriving little communities are now just names on a map and piles of rubble.

For instance, Jbal el Botm, about 6 miles southeast of Tyre, is gone. Its physical remains are now pulverized concrete and personal effects scattered under the August sun. Formerly grand houses are collapsed into piles of rubble and children's toys and family books lie scattered. Tobacco leaves, A mainstay crop in the region, are long since dried but still hang on their wires.

There are almost no people. "About 70% or more of the people in the south are already gone," said Khalid Mansour, the spokesman for the United Nations in Lebanon.

We took a journey through more than a dozen villages southeast of Tyre on Tuesday, taking advantage of Israel's announcement of a 48-hour lull in air strikes following the attack in Qana that hospital officials now say killed 28 people. (According to Human Rights Watch, another 13 people are still missing.)

From what we could see, southern Lebanon has been largely depopulated after remaining residents took advantage of the same 48-hour period to flee destroyed villages. Even in towns that have largely escaped the attack, there are very few signs of activity. Most storefronts are covered by steel drapes, but others are more eerie: Except for a thick coating of grime, some shops and cafés look like the owners just stepped away for a moment. Most houses were locked, but we could see place settings still on the tables — a land-based version of the legendary abandoned ship, Mary Celeste.

In Bourj ech Chemali, just outside of Tyre, about 1,500 people remain out of some 10,000, according to Ali Talib, 57, a long-time resident. In Tibnine itself, a town of about 10,000 people, all but 200 had fled, according to Lebanese internal security forces. And in the town of Haris near Tibnine, a woman waiting with six family members for a ride to Beirut said only 40 people out of 8,000 remained.

In all, some 800,000 to 900,000 Lebanese have fled their homes for the north, said Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. About 150,000 are in Syria, but the rest have been placed in schools, community centers or the private homes of other Lebanese. Host families are sharing their homes with as many as 30 to 40 people.

The only other comparable mass displacement in recent memory is Kosovo in 1998, van Genderen Stort said, where 800,000 people were displaced in the span of a month. And problems continued even after a cease-fire was announced. As soon as the Serbian forces withdrew, most of the 800,000 poured back across the border to go home. "They were unstoppable," van Genderen Stort said. For months, the U.N. and other international organizations had to deal with refugees returning to a devastated country, destroyed homes and dead relatives. Much the same, she warned, will happen in Lebanon.