Every day during the past two weeks some of his charges died of starvation, Abdel Kader Nazzal said today. He said he expected that most would die the same way "within a month if the war continues."
Precise, almost self-effacing, Nazzal does not strike visitors to the Islamic Home for the Invalid and Retarded as given to gloom or exaggeration.
His prediction was based on the fact that the asylum is located in the center of the war zone and lacks sufficient staff to spoon-feed the severely mentally retarded patients as required.
"It's simple," said a relief worker. "The staff left. But not the patients, who had nowhere to go."
Nazzal estimated that "no fewer than 50" of the 850 patients in the state-financed institution when the war started two months ago have died. Nazzal is the head nurse, one of 10 male and three female nurses who constitute all that remain of a 250-strong prewar work force that has not seen any of its 15 doctors since the conflict's first day.
The asylum's problems are more severe than those of other Beirut hospitals, although they do not differ in kind. All state and private services have been falling apart during the past seven years of violence and with ever-increasing speed since the Israeli invasion.
Looking at half a dozen tiny beds each containing two mentally retarded children, it was hard to dispute Nazzal's pessimistic judgment.
The most pathetic cases had the swollen bellies and matchstick limbs characteristic of malnutrition. Flies covered the naked, wasted bodies of these children, who appeared to be no more than 5. Their bulging eyes stared blankly.
Yesterday a little boy died of starvation, Nazzal said. A 65-year-old man died when an Israeli shell hit the five-story building festooned with large Red Cross flags designed to protect hospitals. Two other patients were wounded in that shelling.
The asylum's location explains many of its problems. The facility is surrounded by Sabra, the cinder-block refugee camp, and is only 100 yards from the sports stadium. Both are favorite targets for Israeli artillery, naval gunfire and air raids.
When the attacks begin, Nazzal said, "Those who can walk go down to the ground floor -- there is no cellar. The others remain where they are. They scream."
The asylum was first hit by Israeli artillery June 25. Six patients were killed, and four staffers and 16 patients were wounded.
Director Omar Houri then ordered that every patient should be evacuated. But aside from a few families who took their own relatives back home, no one came forward to help.
The fourth and fifth floors, now evacuated, show gaping holes, smashed glass, missing sections of outer walls.
Today 27 retarded boys and girls were taken in ambulances under the protection of the International Committee of the Red Cross to an institution in a safer neighborhood.
They were the lucky ones, the only children among the asylum's hundred or so considered strong enough to walk by themselves.
Abdel Rahman Labban, a psychiatrist who is minister of labor and social affairs, telephoned the Red Cross to say that four patients had died of starvation. He asked for help. Labban, according to Nazzal, had not visited the asylum since the war began.
Nazzal, asked whether he is afraid, said, "I am a nurse. This is my work." A measure of the fear the neighborhood inspires was his admission that he sometimes sneaks off for an hour to see his family in nearby Mazraa, but that they had not come to visit him at the asylum.
He conducted several visitors through the asylum and offered to show them what are called the "chronically ill." They declined, having heard of an airless, windowless room where 150 seriously disturbed adult men and women are kept.
On quiet days they are put in an outside courtyard. But today was not a quiet day.