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With Fatal Blasts, War Invades Quiet Enclave of Beirut

Samir Taan Waheb carries belongings from a building after an Israeli warplane fired on the Christian and Muslim neighborhood of Al Shiyah on Monday. Three apartment buildings were destroyed and 29 people were killed.
Samir Taan Waheb carries belongings from a building after an Israeli warplane fired on the Christian and Muslim neighborhood of Al Shiyah on Monday. Three apartment buildings were destroyed and 29 people were killed. (By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)

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A pair of young men walked into the street, lumps in the small of their backs betraying pistols in their belts. They questioned several bystanders and then walked away. Soon they returned with a short, gray-haired man in a safari suit. With the two youths at his side as bodyguards, he surveyed the damage, saying nothing.

A giant portrait of Berri looked down on the scene from about a block away. His party, a Shiite-based group, has disbanded its militia and become a key player in Lebanon's political system. Berri has been the main conduit for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and U.S. and other diplomats seeking to pass messages to the well-hidden Hezbollah leadership.

The sun was just setting over the Mediterranean when the war intruded on his followers in Al Shiyah. It came first in the form of an Israeli reconnaissance drone, which residents said circled overhead with its strange buzz for more than two hours. Shortly before 8 p.m., they recounted, an unidentified man on a motorcycle stopped his vehicle, stepped to the pavement and fired toward the drone with an AK-47 assault rifle. Residents of a nearby hillside saw the tracer rounds heading skyward.

Residents described the man as a lunatic, saying they did not know who he was and why he opened fire. But within minutes, the crowded streets of Al Shiyah trembled with the pair of explosions.

Aly Rmaisseh, speaking from his bed in Mount Lebanon Hospital, said he and his wife, Huda, were out on the balcony of their second-floor apartment with several of their children when the first missile landed on their building.

"I didn't hear a thing," he recalled, his head swathed in bandages. "I didn't realize what was happening. I just felt I was being thrown down, out of control. Then I couldn't move. I tried to move. Then came the second blast."

Physician Nazih Gharios, who heads the hospital staff, said Rmaisseh and his wife, who was lying in the next bed, were lucky because the first blast propelled them through the air from the balcony into the street. The fate of the children who were with them was unclear, Gharios said, but others in the extended Rmaisseh family -- 15 in all -- were inside the apartment and were buried in the rubble.

Some were dragged out and brought in for care. A 9-year-old boy, Hussein Rmaisseh, was in intensive care Tuesday with critical injuries to his brain and shrapnel gouges in his body, Gharios said. A woman named Saadiyeh Rmaisseh was treated in the emergency room soon after the attack but died in the chaos as doctors tried to deal with a sudden flood of patients, he said.

"I don't know about my children yet," Aly Rmaisseh told visitors to his room. "They were taken to different hospitals."

In a corridor outside, Gharios said Rmaisseh had not yet been told that most members of the family were believed to have perished in the rubble. The 50-year-old father, an employee of the nearby Beirut international airport, suffered grave damage to his head and may not be able to withstand the news, Gharios said.


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