By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; A01
TIBNIN, Lebanon, July 25 -- The Israeli shells thundered into the charred hillside above the Tibnin General Hospital. There were two, then another, then two more, the uneven cadence of an attack on Tuesday. The walls shuddered and acrid smoke drifted through the building. Huddled inside were at least 1,350 Lebanese in hallways, rooms, stairwells, a lobby and a basement lit by a few candles, hiding with little water, less food and almost no hope of salvation from a war that provoked their flight and had returned to their doorstep.
"Oh Lord!" cried 60-year-old Saadeh Awadeh, leaping up from a tattered cushion against a wall. "God stop the bombs!"
Her screams made children cry, their tangled wails wrapped in suffocating heat. Her pleas, in vain, angered others.
"Shut up!" one man shouted from down the crowded ground-floor hallway barely lit by the sun.
The Tibnin hospital, eight miles from the Israeli border, a half-hour drive to the coastal city of Tyre in peace, is a Guernica-like tableau of suffering, desperation and anguish, the nexus of the country's unfolding humanitarian crisis in a hilly redoubt near an ancient fort almost unreachable by perilous roads. There are no doctors here. Water does not run. The electricity was cut on the war's first day.
Elderly women, fleeing two weeks of fighting since, have wrapped their swollen, bloodied and bruised feet in gauze. Five babies have been born premature since the fighting started. There is nowhere to bathe them. In another hallway, Abeer Faris cradled in her arms her 3-day-old infant, whom she carried on foot from the besieged city of Bint Jbeil nine hours after giving birth.
"The country is grieving," said Hussein Qadouh, a 43-year-old who had left his home in Tibnin and sought shelter inside.
"There's death all over the place," said Mustafa Wehbe, a 45-year-old, standing next to Qadouh.
Lebanese along the border started fleeing to Tibnin on the war's first day. It was a bigger town than most, known as a picnic spot, perched over tobacco farms, rows of pines and the gracefully aged, rocky hills of southern Lebanon. The first stone of its fort was laid in 1850 B.C., and the town was long ago a resting place for caravans. The hospital was renovated, a seemingly safe place from bombing. So they came -- a few at first, then hundreds and dozens more Tuesday, from fighting growing more intense by the day. And here they wait, in a narrative of war's suffering, tragedies more personal than political.
Entering the lobby was like opening an oven door, and anger, fear and abandonment poured forth. People crowded for space along the tile floors and underneath an entrance that bore the hospital's name in metal-worked, gold lettering. The walls were adorned with faded red-and-white Lebanese flags.
"Get us out of here!" one person pleaded.
"Help us!" another cried.
"Have you brought any food?" someone else shouted.
There are no shops open in Tibnin, once a town of 4,000. Families said they were surviving on one meal a day; estimates of the sick ran from 40 to more, mostly children. The hospital administration has largely fled; so have the doctors. Hardly any aid can reach the town on winding, remote roads where Israeli forces have repeatedly struck civilian cars. The hospital's lifeline is the Lebanese Red Cross, which lost two ambulances Sunday night when Israeli rockets pierced their roofs. On most days, sometimes in several trips, the ambulances bring 300 to 500 packets of flat bread, 10 pieces in each, and maybe 100 cans of tuna.
"It's one drop of water in the ocean," said Qassem Shaalan, a Red Cross worker who was wounded in Sunday's attack.
"It's not 1 percent of what they need," he added. "It's one in 1,000."
Wehbe, in soiled clothes, his moustache heavy, arrived at the hospital Tuesday morning, with 50 others from his village of Ainata. They were some of the last still there after bombing had gone on three days, day and night.
"They were destroying the houses over our heads," he said. "Fine, let soldier fight soldier, but we're civilians."
They took their chances, walking six miles through the morning. Shelling punctuated their exodus, along roads littered with the shuttered artifacts of everyday life: the La Ciel salon, Maatouk Café, the Mansour restaurant and the Mehdi schools.
"And they're still coming from all over the place," Wehbe said, pointing to a family that had just arrived from Bint Jbeil, where fighting raged Tuesday between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli troops trying to occupy the town.
He listed the other towns emptying into Tibnin: Aitaroun, Maroun al-Ras and Yaroun. Family after family listed dead and wounded relatives. Time and again, they pleaded for help in getting the bodies excavated from rubble that had entombed them in their villages. The Red Cross has focused on saving the living; other than ragtag civil defense units, there is no government left.
"How can we get in? How can we get their bodies?" asked Awadeh. "God show me."
She had arrived a week ago from Aitaroun, after her brother, Moussa, his wife, Jamila, and their five children -- Ali, Abeer, Hassan, Mariam and Mohammed, ages 5 to 15 -- were killed in an airstrike on their village. They left the corpses behind. She sat with her sister, Haniyeh, who had trekked with her and others from the village about 10 miles.
Haniyeh pointed to her bandaged feet, still swollen and bruised from the walk.
"It's more wretched here than there," she said glumly, sitting on a mattress against the wall.
"We just don't know what's going on," her sister said.
The hospital is a two-story building of concrete, part of it unfinished. The rooms have a sickly glow, barely lit by the sun. The fortunate have occupied rooms; others sleep on mattresses in the hallways, their few belongings stuffed in plastic bags. Weak children sit silent with their mothers. Tempers have frayed, the combustible emotions created by too many people in too little space. They grew worse Tuesday as the shells landed near the fort. An hour before, blasts had ignited fires on the hillside below.
More found room in the darkened basement, where a few candles cast ghostly silhouettes of the displaced against the wall.
"Every day, the numbers keep rising," said Fatimeh Assem, a 13-year-old wandering the halls.
A ride out of Tibnin costs $100, far more than most of the families here have. Even with the money, drivers are reluctant to take roads punctuated with buildings flattened by blasts and cars either incinerated or abandoned, some still flying white flags. At times, rubble spills into the roads. Tracks are cleared by vehicles passing under the iconography of Hezbollah, which draws on the southern Lebanese for much of its support. "The resistance will remain, remain, remain," one sign read. At several spots along the way, fires have charred the terraced hills, along with their pine and olive trees. At bends in the road, signs on the walls of buildings, perched on top of cars and scrawled on concrete walls read "Toward Tyre," directing travelers to relative safety.
"What can we do?" asked Sabah Hashem, a 50-year-old woman, gathered with her family of 16 in a room at the hospital where dentists work. "There's no medicine, there are no supplies. If we try to take people to another hospital, they'll hit the ambulance on the road."
Her niece, 4-year-old Zeinab Hashem, played with a blond doll, on a blanket. The girl's brother slept in a dental chair. Clothes were draped over the equipment. On a sterilizer, a Koran was turned open, black prayer beads laying atop a page.
"Is there no way you can get us out of here?" Hashem asked. "God be with you if you can find us a way."
Her sister Fatima rushed toward her. "Can you get the foreigners to come get us? What about the United Nations?"
Another woman, 70-year-old Fahima Abbas, added her voice.
"If the United Nations would just give us a truce for four or five hours, we could get the people out of here and to Beirut."
Southern Lebanon, already the country's poorest region, has suffered the war's greatest toll. In the hospital, the desperation was woven with a sense of abandonment, directed at virtually everyone except Hezbollah.
"What's the Lebanese government providing us?" asked Hassan Hamza, a 19-year-old from Tibnin, here for 13 days.
Others joined the conversation.
"The government only loves the Americans," said his friend, Assem.
"It only loves money and the Americans," Hamza said.
Hoda Fawwaz, a 50-year-old from Tibnin, approached the group. She carried a small, blue radio, its batteries still working.
"It's the resistance that loves the people," she said. "It's the only one that protects the children and the young."
Down the hall, Faris carried her 3-day-old son, Khattar, and an empty bottle with a blue cap. She gave birth to him at 10 p.m. Saturday in Bint Jbeil. By 7 the next morning, she, her husband, Mohammed, her sons Aissa and Mustafa and her daughter, Israa, were walking to Tibnin. They arrived by noon, stopping along the way when bombing was especially fierce.
Mohammed said they brought nothing but the clothes they were wearing. As he talked, Israa slept on his shoulder.
He pleaded for help: He had relatives in Beirut, he could take care of himself there. He needed just one thing: a ride.
"We have to leave today," he said, his thick, black hair streaked with gray. "We can't stay here any longer."