A Refuge That Became a Place of Death

A resident of Qana, in southern Lebanon, weeps as he shows the bodies of some of the 57 victims of an Israeli airstrike on a building being used as a shelter.
A resident of Qana, in southern Lebanon, weeps as he shows the bodies of some of the 57 victims of an Israeli airstrike on a building being used as a shelter. (By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 31, 2006

QANA, Lebanon, July 30 -- The bulldozer slowly clawed at the rubble Sunday, in motions gentle for a machine. In its path were what was left of life: a bag of onions and a can of beans, a dirt-crusted sandal, a baby bottle, a plaid bag with a diaper still tucked inside and a punctured picture of a young boy, posing awkwardly, his arms stiff at his side. As the sun arced overhead, Israeli shelling thundering in the distance, the shouts went out: "Stop! Stop!" Rescuers surged, then one emerged, his back slightly stooped.

Cradled in his arms was the 27th victim pulled from a partially buried room that had sheltered 63 people in the southern Lebanese village of Qana. The victim's name was Abbas Hashem, and he was 1 year old. His blue pacifier still dangled from his green tank top.

Behind the pair was a book, tossed by the blast into a splintered olive tree.

"The Keys to Heaven," its title read.

Tragedy visited Qana again Sunday, a once-picturesque village of figs, grapevines and olive trees along rolling, rocky hills where Lebanese believe Jesus Christ turned water into wine for a wedding. It was here on April 18, 1996, that 106 people were killed when Israeli forces shelled a U.N. compound that had given refuge to 800 Lebanese. The Lebanese government said that at least 57 people were killed in an Israeli attack on the same village Sunday, 37 of them children, their bodies frozen in the angles that only death can bring.

Most of the 27 people whose bodies were recovered had suffocated, choking to death on dirt and debris as their refuge became their cemetery.

"The people thought they were safe in a shelter," Bassam Muqdad, the head of a Lebanese Red Cross team, said simply.

Israel said its attack on the three-story, concrete and cinder-block building, perched atop a ridge along a winding dirt road, came after rockets were fired from the area. Villagers were blunt in their support for Hezbollah but insisted that fighters were not operating near their homes. They said the village had been under Israeli surveillance for a week, their movements in and out of the shelter clearly visible. The village itself, they said, is under the control of Amal, a Shiite Muslim group and sometime rival of Hezbollah.

The scene was desperate Sunday, filled with anger at the loss of civilian life, a sense of abandonment, incomprehension, defiance and grief.

"I'm staying here! I'm dying in my village!" an elderly man shouted as rescue workers tried to get him to leave Qana.

He was one of the last left. Finally, he was pushed to the village's edge.

Soon after, a stretcher passed, carrying a corpse.


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