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A Refuge That Became a Place of Death
Victims Were From Two Extended Families; Most Suffocated in Debris

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 31, 2006; A01

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.

"Hassan! My cousin! Hassan!" a man shouted as he clambered, crying, toward the body.

The building itself had buckled, as if it had been lifted and set back down at chaotic angles. Chunks of concrete dangled from twisted iron rods. A pillow and mattress were sandwiched between dirt, stone and metal. Inside the dimly lit room, soldiers, Red Cross workers and volunteers dug with hoes, shovels and their bare hands, at times frantically, tossing chunks of concrete to the side. Metal poles and pieces of lumber from the house were propped under a sagging roof, forcing rescue workers to bend low as they dug.

"Be careful!" an officer shouted. "Slowly! Gently!"

A bulldozer moved back and forth. In its way was a knot of children's clothes, strewn along the road outside the shelter. Back and forth it went, grinding them further into the dirt. Along a wall lay the artifacts of lost lives: a red bag inscribed "Sportswear," a child's gray shorts, a pink towel, a tin teakettle, a red cup and a radio with its battery compartment open. Propped over them was a floral-patterned blue mattress with two fresh bloodstains the size of grapefruits. Flies converged on them.

The bulldozer dragged more items into the open: a yellow sponge still in its wrapper and a broken white plate.

Then more bodies came out, all from two extended families, the Hashems and Shalhoubs, who had sought shelter in the building for a week or more. The arm of one person was extended, as if calling for help. Another man appeared to have died as he was putting on his pants to flee. Twelve-year-old Hussein Hashem was removed, curled in a fetal position, his mouth covered in dirt. He was rushed to an ambulance, the jostling making him look lifelike. A Red Cross worker put a stethoscope to his chest, more as a formality than anything.

Then Abbas Hashem, the baby, emerged, his frail body held above the crowd. A purple bruise covered his forehead, his tongue hung out. He was coated in dust. At one point, a rescue worker gingerly wiped the dirt off his cheek.

"All the bodies that we've found choked on the dirt," said Muqdad, the Red Cross team leader.

He watched the rescue effort as it dragged on into the evening. His voice was soft, but frustrated and angry.

"There's a house over there," Muqdad said, pointing in the distance. "There's dead, and we can't get to them."

"These are all civilians," he added. "There's no base here, this isn't a military area. There's nothing around here."

Virtually everything in Qana was coated in a film of gray dust. Drying tobacco swayed in a breeze, tethered to tree branches. Olive trees, perhaps a century old, were split like toothpicks. Stretches of the village around the Imam Ali Mosque were reduced to rubble, wires dangling along the street. A car had been hurled into a grove, a brown Persian rug hanging out of what used to be its roof. A donkey brayed, and a cat wandered through wreckage.

"The child who choked to death, what was his sin?" asked Khalil Burji, a 54-year-old electrician watching the recovery, who counted two friends among the dead. "When you see something like this, what can you feel?"

Burji said the two extended families had sought shelter in the newly built house, judging it safer than their older, sometimes shoddily built homes. The ground floor was built against a hill, and the valley below seemed to provide a buffer. But the shelling that night was as intense as any the villagers had seen in the fighting. At 1 a.m., as the children tried to sleep and the adults brewed tea, the first bomb struck outside the shelter, where a fragment inscribed MK-84 remained the next day.

Ibrahim Shalhoub, a tobacco farmer, and his cousin, Mohammed, fled to the town square to seek help. By the time they returned, between five and 15 minutes later, a second bomb struck the shelter, burying those inside.

"I got dizzy, then I passed out, and I don't what happened next," said Najwa Zeinab, 35, who was pulled out of the rubble by Shalhoub, but lost her brother, Tayseer, her sister, Nabila, and her 6-year-old niece.

Screams and cries pierced the night, with shouts suffocated by the thunder of explosions. "Don't die! Don't die!" Zeinab Shalhoub remembered people yelling inside as they lay buried or pinned by rubble, choking on dirt and smoke. Others called for their fathers and their brothers. "Ali!" "Mohammed!" Mothers were trapped with their children, sometimes listening as they took their last breaths.

"I knew they were all going to die," Ibrahim Shalhoub said.

Shalhoub called the civil defense and the Lebanese Red Cross for help. But the roads were too dangerous. When Red Cross workers tried to make it at 6:30 a.m., they were forced to turn back three times because of Israeli shelling, Muqdad said.

"We tried, but the bombs were falling right in front of us," he said.

By afternoon, some of the 27 bodies were laid out on plastic along the cement floor of a courtyard at Tyre's government hospital. Mehdi Hashem was 7. Hussein Hashem was 12. Abbas Hashem was 1. Ali Shalhoub was a child, but no one knew his age. None of his family had survived. The children were wrapped in blankets, sheets or bedspreads, then sheathed in plastic. Each end was taped, and their names were written by hand with a black marker on another piece of tape strapped around their waists. They were loaded into a refrigerated truck, the cool interior of the temporary morgue creating a mist when its doors were opened.

"No one should have to see this," said Mohammed Tahmaz, a 28-year-old resident watching bodies being loaded.

At the hospital, people grappled with the decision to tell survivors their relatives had died.

"There are families that have no one left, not one child," said Zeinab Shalhoub, who lost her father, Ahmed; mother, Affaf; sister, Awla; brother, Ali; and another brother, Yusuf. "My sweetheart," she said after mentioning each of their names.

In the hospital's courtyard, Mohammed Shalhoub sat with lifeless eyes, his right hand broken. His wife, Khadija, and his mother, Hasna, were dead, as were his daughters Hawra and Zahra, ages 12 and 2. So were his sons, Ali, 10, Yahya, 9, and Assem, 7.

For long moments, he was quiet. Then he spoke, to no one in particular.

"I wish God would have left me just one child," he said softly.

He started crying, his body heaving. "Oh, God!" he yelled.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company