At Temporary Haven, Tales of Refugee Woe
'There Was Destruction All Around Us'

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 12, 2006

JAZZIN, Lebanon, Aug. 11 -- Mustafa Bitar had a dangerous job, sweeping the terraced orchards and rolling hills of southern Lebanon for land mines left behind during previous wars. His mission was to save lives.

But four weeks ago, Bitar had to save his own family. As the warfare between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters moved close to the town of Habboush where he lives, Bitar gathered up his family and fled to Jazzin, 10 miles northeast. Each time a plane approached, the screams of his 6-year-old son, Ali, were just too much to bear, he said.

"Every time he hears a plane humming in the sky, he starts sobbing and howling. War just came. The Habboush bridge was hit a few yards from us, and I had to save my family," Bitar said, cradling his 11-month-old daughter, Israa, in his arms. Ali clung to his father's leg as jets in the distance droned noisily.

Bitar and hundreds of other refugees waited in the blazing sun for a box of canned food being handed out by Mercy Corps, an international relief organization that had endured a circuitous route from Beirut, through a mountain area populated by Druze, to Jazzin.

"You could say my life has regressed," Bitar said quietly, his unshaven face gaunt as he described his work with the Mines Advisory Group, a humanitarian organization based in Britain.

More than 11,000 refugees have arrived in Jazzin and surrounding towns since the crisis began. As they huddled in municipal buildings, monasteries and schools, tempers flared and passions hardened as discussions about a U.N. draft resolution dragged on and the Israeli ground offensive pushed farther north.

On Friday, Israeli shelling in the area hit a convoy evacuating members of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon and Lebanese soldiers in the western Bekaa Valley, killing at least four people. A day earlier, two men were killed and nine people were wounded in Israeli airstrikes in the nearby market town of Nabatiyeh.

Nabil Ghoulosh, 45, a father of six who fled the village of Jbaa, tensely fingered his orange worry beads as he leaned against a car near a Mercy Corps truck. "I had a job, a home and now we are being humiliated as we line up for handouts," he said.

Three Mercy Corps trucks carrying eight tons of food for residents in Nabatiyeh and nearby villages were re-routed to Jazzin on Friday after the only road into Nabatiyeh from Jazzin was hit Thursday and Friday as Israeli troops and tanks moved forward and clashes flared in the hills.

Men, women and children swarmed the courtyard of the Maria Aziz Technical School as workers unloaded food from one of the trucks. Clusters of people -- strangers until this week -- shared classrooms inside the building, their living space separated by sheets held up with laundry clips.

Hassan Najdi, 18, walked three days through vineyards and peach orchards from Srifa to reach Sidon, then caught a bus to Jazzin. "We saw death with our eyes," said Najdi, who made it to safety with his younger brother, two sisters and parents. "There was destruction all around us, and some 20 bodies along the way."

Najdi described how villagers, including his younger siblings, had piled into trucks to flee. "Our house is uninhabitable. It did not receive a direct hit but its walls are cracked. There was no room for me in the pickup truck so I came through the fields. There was so much dust, sand and rocks flying around, I could barely see."

His brother, Ali, 12, said he was playing football when the rockets first hit a school in Srifa. "I left with everyone and my goat Lulu. There were too many villagers and not enough room on the trucks and some people had to walk," he said. "I did not want to leave without Lulu. She was my favorite."

"All I want is to be able to go back to my village and live with the people I know and like around me and not spend my life sleeping under some olive tree. And I don't want Siniora to cry," Hassan Najdi said, referring to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who wept Monday during an address as he spoke about children killed in the fighting.

Fighting raged Friday on the outskirts of Marjayoun, 10 miles north of the Israeli border. International relief workers and the mayor of Nabatiyeh, Mustapha Badreddine, said Lebanese police and army personnel there were being evacuated by U.N. soldiers to Nabatiyeh and to the Druze and Christian township of Hasbaya. The International Committee of the Red Cross sent an advance team and a bus to help evacuate residents in Marjayoun.

Afif Salameh, 40, a barber, and Imad Daaher, 65, were killed Thursday when bombs and rocket fragments from a fight between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers in the nearby hills of Kfar Roummane rained down on Nabatiyeh.

Last Monday, Mercy Corps was forced to unload supplies in Sidon after the road to Nabatiyeh was destroyed. Mercy Corps had advised the Israel Defense Forces of its planned route but did not wait for approval, according to Cassandra Nelson, a spokeswoman for the organization.

The group set up a warehouse Friday in Jazzin as a first step toward helping sustain the people who had fled the fighting.

Glass and surgical equipment was shattered at the Popular Rescue Hospital in Nabatiyeh, said Badreddine, the town's mayor. In a telephone interview, he said he was able to leave his home only five times in the past 10 days. At least 7,000 residents remained there, he said. "These are old people who cannot go too far anyway and who don't have the means to leave," he added.

Two truck drivers braved aerial shelling on the road from Nabatiyeh through Sidon and then east to Jazzin to ferry badly needed supplies. "Whoever stayed has no way of leaving," said one of the drivers, Mohammed Mahdi, 46, a retired army officer recruited by the government-linked Higher Relief Agency.

As he left Nabatiyeh, the road was bombed from the air, forcing him to stop, he said upon arriving in Jazzin. "There were fires on the left, fires on the right in the fields," he said. "The first thing they struck in Nabatiyeh were the warehouses, the commercial shops and the fuel tanks and gas stations."

"They are running out of luck," Richard Jacquot, a French Mercy Corps official, said about the increasingly isolated residents of Nabatiyeh and the refugees.

"There is no worse situation to be in for a people than to be waiting for death," said Gloria Shweiri, 47, a Mercy Corps worker from Beirut.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company