By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 7, 2006
SIDON, Lebanon, Aug. 6 -- Physician Ghassan Hammoud leaned into the phone Sunday, one hand to his ear, the other gesturing. As in so much in southern Lebanon these days, there was a tone of desperation, a touch of exasperation, a hint of pleading and a sense of the unprecedented. It was one of 15 calls he would make this day, one of 50 he might receive, all trying to bring order to chaos.
He needed fuel for cars. Then seven cars to go to Beirut to pick up medicine. He needed drivers who would risk roads that Israeli forces have attacked. Then more fuel for the generators to power his hospital, the biggest in Lebanon's third-largest city.
Hammoud, 70, hung up his phone and fell back in his chair. He shook his head, a gesture toward a Sisyphean plight.
"I tell you what, this war might go for a long time," he said, a four-page list of needed medicine before him. "There won't be an end because no one is going to win or lose. Both sides are winning, both sides are losing. The big loser is the Lebanese."
The United States and France have agreed on a draft U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire in the nearly four-week-old war, but already Sunday, U.S. officials were saying that it was only a first step and that it would take a while to end the fighting. Few appeared to disagree in beleaguered southern Lebanon, where weary residents began settling in for the long wait across a terrain more battered by fighting than at any time in the country's modern history.
With a sense that both Israel and Hezbollah have the stamina and endurance to fight on, many in southern Lebanon have started to think of their futures placed within a long-running war: Doctors talk about leaving the country for good; some of the hundreds of thousands of displaced within Lebanon have simply come back to their homes in places such as Tyre, fearful the temporary was becoming permanent.
"Brother, you try living in a school," said Khodr al-Ruz, 17, who returned two days ago to Tyre after spending three weeks sharing a classroom with 15 other displaced Lebanese in the Christian town of Byblos, north of Beirut.
A day after the war started, Ruz and his extended family got in eight cars -- a ramshackle convoy of old Mercedes, Toyotas, Hondas and a van -- and headed north, a 12-hour drive, between shelling, over often mountainous roads. They decided to leave after an Israeli missile struck a building in Tyre that housed the civil defense agency and leaflets urged southern Lebanese to evacuate.
"No one was reassuring us," he said.
At the government high school in Bint Jbeil, they joined about 400 other people from the poor Shiite Muslim neighborhoods of Beirut, Tyre and the villages of southern Lebanon bearing the brunt of the war.
"How could you breathe?" he asked. "There wasn't any oxygen in there."
By last week, Ruz said, he had had enough. He caught a taxi to the edge of Beirut, another through Beirut, a third taxi to Sidon and then a minibus to Tyre. He borrowed the money to pay for the fare, about $12 in all. On Sunday, a Metallica tattoo on his arm, a pack of cigarettes at his side, he spent the afternoon at his home watching an old Egyptian film, starring comedian Adel Imam.
"My nerves are good now," Ruz said, smiling.
He glanced at the movie. "It's the way it is. It's not going to change. I guess I'll live in my home and die in it."
In cities such as Sidon and Tyre, the longer the war drags on, the longer many feel it will last.
Sidon, relatively unscathed, still maintains a sense of urban life, with shops open and people on crowded sidewalks; the streets of Tyre remain largely deserted. At least two Israeli attacks on cars in the city and on its outskirts Sunday abruptly cleared traffic. Convoys brought food to Tyre, but drivers judged the roads too risky to venture into the hinterland. Gasoline was scarce. Sami Haddad, the economy and trade minister, estimated there was enough fuel for two days in the south, a week elsewhere.
"Is there a solution?" asked Afif Khouri, a 60-year-old barber out of work since the war started. "There's no solution."
Khouri sat with his friend Bassam Baghdadi on Tyre's seafront, spending a boozy afternoon. Two beer bottles, five coffee cups and two packs of cigarettes were spread over the table at a cafe, overlooking boats that, given the Israeli naval blockade, dare not venture to sea. Seven young boys got out of the water, laughing as they strolled past bored fishermen in idle conversation. Fishing nets were piled up on the edge of the harbor, snarled and unused. Fishermen lately have used dynamite thrown from the shore to gather fish.
"The two, Israel and Hezbollah, deserve each other," Khouri said. "Is that not true? It's correct."
Baghdadi nodded. "We're the playing field here," he said.
Khouri beckoned the cafe owner. "Get me another beer," he shouted. Baghdadi brought himself another cup of coffee.
In the war's first days, Baghdadi had taken his wife, 16-year-old son and twin 9-year-old daughters to the mountains above Beirut. He rented an apartment for $10 a day, but was without electricity and had too little water and food. Sixteen days, and he came back to Tyre. He deemed his house, on the city's outskirts, too unsafe, so he moved in with his sister-in-law near the downtown.
"Next I'm going to swim out into the ocean," Baghdadi said.
Khouri smiled, dusk starting to soften the sun on the blue and turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
"If we're supposed to die, we'll die," he said. "How many times can someone die?" He lifted his finger, his eyelids heavy. "Just once." Baghdadi laughed. "We'll eat, drink and watch the shells fall," Khouri said. "And maybe we'll end up in heaven."
"Give me a cigarette," he said to Bahgdadi.
Khouri, a Christian, was a friend of the family of Baghdadi, 41, a Shiite Muslim. Khouri visited the cafe every day. Baghdadi dropped by to catch up with Khouri at a place he thought safer than his sister-in-law's.
"For me and my kids, if we had a way to go to Ethiopia and it was safe, that's it. Let's get out of here," Baghdadi said.
"That way," Khouri said, pointing south, "it's all destruction. That's not a pity? Since 2000, for six years, everything was rebuilt. In a month, it's all gone." He held up his finger again. "One month."
Then he let loose with a string of expletives about the war.
"What kind of movie do they think they're making?" Baghdadi asked.
They talked about civilians killed on both sides of the conflict, and they predicted the war would go on and on.
"Do you have a plane here?" Baghdadi asked.
"If you do, take us with you," Khouri said.
"What about Michigan?" Baghdadi asked.
The task Sunday for Hammoud, the owner of the 320-bed hospital in Sidon, was finding 50,000 liters of fuel to supplement the 30,000 he already had. Together, that would power the hospital's five generators for 12 days. It was more crucial than the medicine sent to him, piling up in Cyprus because of the blockade. It was more important than the gauze and plaster he was running out of.
"When electricity is gone, there's no hope for anything," he said.
Hammoud has already cut chemotherapy for cancer patients from once a week to once every two weeks. The 160 dialysis patients now receive half their allotted time. In most cases, his hospital tries to receive only war casualties -- more than 300 so far.
"Here it is, the fourth week, and we still don't know," he said. Pictures of Lebanon in better times were on his walls -- a painting of the Roman ruins at Baalbek and a photograph of the medieval port in Sidon. His phone rang often -- he now uses two cellphones, two private land lines and the hospital's 35 numbers. "There's just no hope now. Ask anyone outside."
Hammoud said this war is worse than the 1982 Israeli invasion, one of the most devastating periods of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Back then, his hospital, founded in 1966, was prepared. This time, it wasn't.
"All those times were much easier, much easier than this, to tell you frankly," he said. "In all other wars, you had hope for change or that you would be helped by others. Now you feel you have a war, but is it going to end? What's going to happen?"
"Stop the war, okay, but what then?" he asked.
Hammoud had slept in the hospital every night since the war started, as had his daughter and son-in-law, helping him manage. He expected to keep sleeping there. Uncertainty underlined his words -- how to make war somehow ordinary.
"You can always stay here and work with what you have," he said. "I'm not going to say that I'm going to leave."
Upstairs was one of his 300 full- and part-time doctors, George Fhaily. "I think it's a war for years," he said. "I'm thinking of emigrating. This time is very different."
"It's not an optimistic country," said his colleague, Khalil Hamad.
Hamad and three other doctors were sharing a patients room, the beds unmade. Next to the TV were movies -- "Anger Management" and "Bad Company." The news was turned to al-Manar, the Hezbollah television channel. One of the doctors, Tareq Hussairi, wore a beard he had grown since the war started. "Tired, depressed and anxious," he called himself. Nearly all of them were ready to emigrate.
"We worry about what's going to come after the war -- our homes, our businesses. Some people, their villages are destroyed," he said. The others nodded, talking about the wounded they had treated, the families who had lost relatives. "They'll never go back to the home they remembered," Hussairi said.