In Lebanon

Road Through a Landscape of Death

A woman weeps over a coffin in Tyre before the mass burial there of 82 Lebanese bombing victims.
A woman weeps over a coffin in Tyre before the mass burial there of 82 Lebanese bombing victims. (By Marco Di Lauro -- Getty Images)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 22, 2006

DEIR QANUN AL-NAHR, Lebanon, July 21 -- A road of death and desolation coils through southern Lebanon.

It begins in Tyre, where 82 people killed in Israeli attacks this week were sheathed in hastily crafted wooden caskets Friday, their faces pointed toward Mecca, as custom dictates. Each coffin bore a number, and a name, sloppily handwritten on top. Under a blistering sun, they were lined up along a wall, smaller ones for children, including a still-born baby. Women in black uttered prayers; some sobbed in grief. As the temperature climbed, others lifted a corner of their veils to shield their drawn faces from the stench of death. Together, they waited for military trucks to carry the corpses to a temporary mass grave in an empty sandlot.

The road ends in Deir Qanun al-Nahr, a town of 3,000 in the hinterland beyond Tyre, where Fatima Diab and more than 100 other people huddled in a sweltering basement Friday, as Israeli strikes pummeled the villages and valleys around them. She arrived a week ago with no food, no spare clothes and no water. Three radios crackled with news of the war. People prayed. And at times, Diab tried to sleep in the cacophony of bombing and Israeli jets that, on this day, subsided only briefly.

"I don't think this war is ever going to end," she said in the dim basement, her face framed in a veil.

In peacetime, the road trip from Tyre to Deir Qanun in southern Lebanon is 10 miles. In war, the town is reached after a 60-mile trek of more than two hours, past pulverized homes, roads blocked by craters, rubble and the burned stumps of citrus trees, forsaken villages with not a resident in sight and long stretches of deserted streets seized with fear of Israeli attacks. The lucky -- with money and means -- have left. The less fortunate, like 19-year-old Diab, hide, as an abandoned, bleak landscape awaits an even fiercer war.

"Take my number! Write it down!" pleaded Abu Hamadeh, a 35-year-old dentist standing in the street in Maarake, on the road to Deir Qanun. "If you know someone who can get to me to Beirut, I'll pay. Everyone's gone. Tell me how to get there!"

Bombing rattled the iron gate of his building every few minutes, as reverberations of the blasts echoed along the street.

"Don't worry," he said, reassuring, as the few women out hurried indoors. "Those are far away."

Hamadeh's generator gave him enough electricity for an hour a day, but fuel was running short. The cost of a liter of gasoline has increased tenfold here. Without power, water from tanks on the roofs cannot be pushed through the faucets. He pointed to the garbage that had collected in piles along the street, putrefying in the heat. Swarms of flies gathered around it.

"Look at it," he said, pointing. "We tell the municipality to get it out of here, and they tell us to screw ourselves."

"Lebanon has gone back five years," he said. He stopped, shaking his head. "I take that back. Not five, 50."

The most common question along the way these days in southern Lebanon is whether the road is open. Drivers shout it from their windows, to a rare car passing the other way or to someone peering from behind a door. Often, there is no one to ask.

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