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Road Through a Landscape of Death

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A01

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.

In Bozuriya, the only traffic was a single pickup, barreling down the hilly road with a half-dozen men in back. Each gripped a pole flying a white flag, shirt or towel, sometimes with two hands. Farther down the road, in Jouaiya, an arch welcomed visitors: "Lebanon is a nation of resistance." No one in the town was fighting. No one was in the streets. The only hint of life was the Muslim call to prayer, lyrical, reassuring and unhurried, its ritual of routine interrupted by the uneven cadence of bombing.

"No one's coming out of hiding," said Yusuf Kasani, a stocky 50-year-old carpenter.

Kasani lives in Deir Qanun. At the village entrance, bombing had demolished three houses. Patches of the distinctive red tile of Lebanese homes were still intact; the rest was a pile of masonry and metal spilling into the lone street. On the other side, the blast had sheared off the faces of buildings. Residents said 13 people were killed in the attack, four of the corpses still rotting under the wreckage. Down the street, Kasani huddled with the more than 100 people gathered in the basement, the village's only sign of life.

The stately villa of cream stone belongs to the Izzeddin family. They long ago fled to faraway Aley, leaving the house to the displaced. The tomatoes sit untended, and the vines of wild cucumber known as miqti have shriveled without water. The iron gates are open, and down the sidewalk, around the house, through a half-closed metal door, is the dimly lit, unfinished basement.

Hezbollah's radio station, al-Nour, and the BBC played inside. Along the floor, each family had staked out space, throwing down blankets and mattresses. No one has enough drinking water. Occasionally, the youngest men will run to the houses, bringing back food. Elderly women cook it -- rice, potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes picked from the villa's garden -- over a tiny stove hooked up to a blue kerosene tank. Alongside the stove was a pile of logs, for heat in the blustery Lebanese winter.

"If we run out of food, we'll eat this," Kasani said.

"Everyone here is the same," he went on. "Someone gives me bread, someone gives me food. Then I give when I have it."

He grabbed Rida Zalzali, 36. "This is my brother," he said. He pointed to Iman Naseer, 38. "This is my sister."

Four-year-old Rayan Zalzali handed a visitor a candy bar. Others offered a fig, a drink of water, even a tissue.

"No one here lives on their own," Kasani said.

On this day, the bombing outside the basement was near-constant. Israel repeated its warning that everyone in the south must flee north of the Litani River "immediately." Missiles fell every few minutes on Srifa, a village across the valley, where dozens of people are believed to be buried in the rubble. The most distant booms barely elicited a response. Those nearer drew the attention of the people huddled in the basement.

"Did you hear that?" an elderly woman asked, a question that seemed to seek comfort more than confirmation.

In the most unsettled times, a longing for the ordinary sometimes seems most powerful. Young women washed dishes, turning water off and on to conserve it. One swept the floor as families stacked their mattresses. Diab, with her family of seven, said most of the time was spent in prayer and in conversations about the war "and the beautiful days before it."

The talk offered a window on the mood of the besieged in southern Lebanon. There is anger at the sense of abandonment -- by their government, by the United Nations and by other Arab states. There is deep hostility toward the United States and Israel, what one resident called "two faces of the same coin." There is a desperate fear that, out of pride, people express only softly. There is desire for routine, to maintain dignity. And there is talk of never departing, a resonant theme in a land Israel occupied for 18 years.

"We're not going to leave from here -- us, our children, our women, our daughters. Everyone is going to stay," said Hussein Skaiki, a 41-year-old driver. "Let Israel attack us." He pointed to Mohammed Ghassan, "around 70," his legs crippled by diabetes. "The roots of the village are planted in the old people," he said. "If they left, it would be a sin. Their roots hold the ground together."

Lebanon's wars have often held unintended consequences: Israel's invasion in 1978 helped create the southern suburbs of Beirut that are being bombed today; its 1982 invasion forged the climate for Hezbollah's creation. And the Israeli occupation that ended in 2000 helped incubate the myths and mystique that Hezbollah draws on today.

Ahmed Yaacoub speculated about what this war might create. "It will leave a scar the young are going to bear for 50 years," the 52-year-old teacher said, thumbing black prayer beads. "It's this generation's first experience with death, destruction and bombing. They're creating a frame of mind that will last a lifetime."

Diab and her family left her home at 2 p.m. on the war's first day, after a bomb landed 50 yards away. They brought nothing with them, and she said they were too afraid to return. As the idle hours passed, she said she was angry at almost everything around her.

"Who's talking about our suffering?" she asked.

Her friend, 28-year-old Aqeel Zalzali, interrupted her.

"We have a government that doesn't respect us," he said. "Why isn't it supporting the resistance?"

The road from Deir Qanun passes a crater. Perched at its edge is an abandoned car flying a white flag. On one stretch, bombs have buckled the road every 100 yards or so. One of them struck a little past a sign for the International English School. In Abassiya, another patch of homes is now rubble, a black car overturned on top. Dust from the blast coated every building as if a sandstorm had passed.

At the edge of the village, 41-year-old Salim Diab sat in a white plastic chair, gazing across a valley at rising plumes of smoke.

"I'm just watching," he said casually, as his son played in the shade of a eucalyptus tree.

He said he suspected he might watch for a while in a war he predicted would last weeks, maybe a month. "Israel has Hezbollah clenched in its teeth, and Hezbollah has Israel clenched in its teeth," he said. "Neither is going to open its mouth."

The road returns to Tyre, where the city prepared to inter in a temporary grave 81 corpses collected from the villages of southern Lebanon. Once the fighting subsided and the roads were safe again, their families would bury them in their own towns.

Through the morning, workers hammered cheap plywood into coffins, each one with a small copper emblem bearing a number. On the covers, the victims' names were scrawled in black, gray, red or pink. Workers wore blue surgical masks in the sun as they placed the bodies in the coffins and then lined them up against a white wall marked with a row of numbers.

The places of origin of the dead read like a map of southern Lebanon: Zibqin, Aitaroun, Naqoura, Yater, Shahour, Bozuriya Maroun al-Ras and Marwaheen, where at least 16 residents fleeing the village were killed in an Israeli attack Saturday. Identification numbers were paired with the names: Saeed Hamza Abbas, No. 39; Zeinab Mehdi, No. 44; Hussein Farid, No. 49; Haitham Farid, No. 50.

"This is so inhuman," said Rabia Abu Khashb, 28, as he surveyed the coffins, 15 sized in half for children.

"God protect them," he said softly. "God awaits them."

By afternoon, the military brought them to an open field, where a bulldozer had excavated two trenches 70 yards long and two yards deep. Across the field a house of concrete and cinder block had been struck in a bombing, its floors pancaked. In the backdrop, Israeli air raids targeted the city's outskirts, columns of debris rising into a dusk-shadowed sky.

In the first coffin lay Mustafa Ghannam, one of those fleeing Marwaheen. Then his cousin, Hussein Mohammed Ghannam. Down the row were the coffins of two children from the same family: Qassem Mohammed Ghannam and Zeinab Mohammed Ghannam.

A women in black sobbed. "My sweetheart, yesterday you were playing with me. Who will I play with tomorrow?"

Others offered testaments -- photos taken by cell phone or a bystander's whisper: "There is no strength and power save in God." One man yelled, "God is greater than Israel!" Many simply stood, their faces drawn, in silence.

"These people, what was their sin to die?" asked Ziad Shahadi, one of the onlookers.

"None of them was carrying a weapon. None of them was wearing a uniform. None of them were soldiers on the ground," he said. "They were all civilians. There's no military honor in this, none. How could there be? Killing the young and the old."

More coffins were heaved into the grave from the back of an army truck.

"Bring number 32!" one soldier yelled. "Number 32 is with you," a colleague answered. "There's no 32 here," another responded.

Nails popped out, and a soldier hammered them back in with a rock. A jet trail passed. "Hurry!" one soldier shouted.

As the rest of the coffins were lined up, a bulldozer began pushing in fine sand. And as the sun began to set, a last coffin arrived, holding the victim of bombing a few hours before in Burj Shamali, on Tyre's outskirts. The name and number were scrawled with black marker.

Fatima Shaib was No. 82.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company