By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
TYRE, Lebanon, Aug. 7 -- The nine ambulances were parked outside the Lebanese Red Cross. They couldn't leave -- neither by the road north, which was bombed, nor the road south, which was shelled Monday. Blasts thundered across the Tyre sky, and rumors flew with almost equal vigor: No one could walk outside after 10 p.m., no one should stand in the street in groups bigger than three.
That left Qasim Chaalan, a gentle Red Cross volunteer, with a problem: He had promised to take Khadija Tajj al-Din, a 74-year-old woman, in an ambulance from the Jabal Amel Hospital to a school where her relatives had sought refuge, a trip of a couple of miles.
"You want to help, but you say at any second, it could be your time," Chaalan said.
"You want to make the people feel safe," he added, "but you don't feel it yourself."
For the first time since the war had started, there was no way out of Tyre. And for those left behind, there was no way to get around.
The night before, Israeli aircraft had bombed a pile of powdery sand along a wilting banana plantation that forded the Litani River, what had become the last link between Tyre and the rest of Lebanon. The rest of the bridges along the river, which bisects southern Lebanon, were bombed in the early days of the nearly month-long war. On Monday, Israeli military forces shelled the road to the south, where columns of smoke rose and the whistle of outgoing rockets sounded across the afternoon.
Inside Tyre, besieged and desperate, Israeli missiles struck an apartment complex targeted by an Israeli commando raid last weekend, reducing four five-story buildings to rubble and igniting a fire in a building still standing. The percussion of blasts paralyzed Tyre, transforming the seaside city into a ghost town.
What was supposed to serve as a staging point for relief into southern Lebanon -- the city where aid officials say thousands remain stranded and corpses have rotted in the streets for as many as 10 days -- had become too dangerous for anyone but a few motorcyclists.
"The city is completely cut off from the rest of the world," said Roland Huguenin, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been prevented from sending out convoys for three days. "Tyre doesn't have a lifeline now."
At Jabal Amel Hospital, physician Ahmad Mroue slumped in a leather chair, chatting with a colleague, Bassam Mteirak.
"No ambulances," Mroue said, shaking his head.
"The ambulances are here, and they can't go to the buildings over there," Mteirak said.
He pointed less than a mile away, where the missiles had destroyed the apartment buildings.
"How many are under those four buildings?" Mroue asked.
Mteirak shook his head, glum like Mroue. "God knows," he said.
Israeli naval commandos, under cover of night, had attacked a single apartment in one of the buildings on Saturday, killing four people in a battle that stretched until dawn and spanned across the complex and into a citrus grove along the street. The apartment was gutted. Rifles, ammunition and two rocket-propelled grenades still littered the floor hours later. On Monday, that building, along with three others, was wrecked, only the antennas and satellite dishes still standing amid the splintered concrete and crushed red tile.
"It sounded like an earthquake," said Hussein Muennis, a resident who lived about 100 yards away.
Most of the buildings appeared to have been abandoned after the commando raid. Left behind in the wreckage was a piece of paper from a school report: "Hello! My name is Rana. I am 6 years old." A brass kettle was tipped over, brown tea leaves spilling out. A red, heart-shaped pillow with yellow fringe was partially buried. "I love you," it read.
A playful tune sounded from a child's toy buried underneath other wreckage.
Along a cinder-block wall, graffiti in blue read: "Welcome."
"We Lebanese have lived through everything, but this is enough," said Ahmed Dubouk, a 68-year-old neighbor.
"What a pity!" he said, walking through the wreckage. "What a pity! I swear to God, it's a pity!"
The Israeli military said Hezbollah teams firing missiles toward northern Israel were based at the complex, and hours later, witnesses said they saw men who appeared to be Hezbollah militiamen moving from building to building before leaving. Residents seemed aware of the activity, and a Red Cross worker said most appeared to have fled soon after the commando raid Saturday.
"Ninety or 95 percent of the people had left," said Ali Sweidan, a 43-year-old ambulance driver.
The destruction of the makeshift bridge over the Litani threw relief and medical efforts into further chaos and tangled the lives of the thousands of residents still here who call this war their most trying -- more unsettling than the 1975-90 civil war, more devastating than the 1982 Israeli invasion, and more destructive than Israeli offensives against Lebanon in 1993 and 1996.
At Jabal Amel Hospital, Mteirak, a native of Sidon, said he had been unable to go home for 28 days. He calls his wife and three children once a day. They send photos by cellphone. "There's no way to leave," he said. He repeated the words.
Mroue recalled a patient, Mariam Jawad, who arrived at the hospital from Bint Jbeil on Sunday. She had been wounded three days earlier. The usual 45-minute drive took 10 hours. Her leg was amputated, too damaged by a tourniquet tied to it to stop the bleeding.
"I'm not thinking about anything else other than to stay living," Mroue said, as blasts echoed in the distance, smoke mingling with puffy clouds. "It's not one of the human rights? We want only this. Not democracy, not liberty, nothing. Just this one."
For three days, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it has been unable to win permission from the Israeli military to venture on roads into southern Lebanon. "And I doubt we'll be up and about tomorrow," Huguenin said.
"Our contention is that there may be military necessities, but that doesn't mean the entire region should be off-limits," he added. "The fact you give prior warning doesn't exonerate you of responsibility under international law."
The United Nations said it was trying to get its forces to repair the Litani bridge, which was bombed Sunday night, but Huguenin said workers were reluctant to drive heavy machinery, fearing that Israeli forces would mistake it for missile launchers. The problem had become so bad that earlier, the Red Cross had run into problems getting cranes to the Tyre port to unload a ship with relief supplies.
On Monday, Doctors Without Borders created a 200-yard-long human chain across the river, passing hand to hand in knee-deep water three tons of medical supplies and gasoline, said Sergio Cecchini, a spokesman for the group.
All that spans the rest of the river, its meandering water tinted green, is a fallen tree, he said.
"This is the only way at the moment to connect Tyre to the rest of Lebanon," Cecchini said.
By nightfall, the Israeli military declared a curfew on any traffic in southern Lebanon, south of the Litani River, "from 10 p.m. on." Rumors of it had already spread by afternoon on television news, whose broadcasts have become the secluded city's favorite pastime.
"It's better to die inside than to die in the road," said Khalil al-Ashkar, 25, whose family owns the Salinas restaurant.
Ashkar, his father, uncle and cousin sat on the stoop of the seaside restaurant, watching blasts across the bay.
"I see the smoke and I hear the sounds," his father, Hussein, said simply, with a hint of world-weariness.
A friend popped his head out the door of the restaurant, where he was watching al-Jazeera. The Lebanese army had warned people in the south not to stand outside in groups bigger than three, he said. A few minutes later, the cousin, Hisham, wandered toward the deserted street. "Don't stand there!" Hisham's father, Mohammed, shouted.
A few more minutes and another sound joined the cacophony of explosions, jets and surveillance drones.
"Be careful, there's a helicopter," Hussein shouted.
Around the corner was the Red Cross office, where Chaalan spoke on his phone to a friend trying to enter Tyre.
"How are you going to come?" he asked. "The road is cut. There's no other way."
Chaalan, a volunteer at the Red Cross since 1993, sat in a broken white plastic chair. "A casualty of war," he called it, smiling. He was waiting to take Tajj al-Din two miles from Jabal Amel Hospital to the Jaafariya school in a Red Cross ambulance. He talked about the stress. The patients expected the volunteers to be calm, assured; and to put it simply, they weren't.
"Every time we go out," he said, "we're not sure if we're going to come back or not. This is what we feel."
Word came from the Red Cross operations office: The roads were too dangerous in Tyre.
He waited, as the volunteers often do. Then permission finally came.
He picked her up at the hospital, where other elderly women had gathered. They all wanted to go home, into the hinterland.
"I looked at them and smiled," he said. "I told them, 'All the people are leaving these villages and you want to go?' "
"The old people," he said, "it's not easy to tell them no."