TYRE — That’s what you hear when you go out in the south these days. Well, silence and the sounds of Israeli bombs and shells. Here’s an account of two days in the south:
ZEBQINE, southern Lebanon — In this village, 10 km southeast of Tyre, the only signs of life are two donkeys rooting for food amid the rubble.
Formerly grand houses are now collapsed into piles of concrete. Childrens’ toys and family books lie scattered under the August sun. The tobacco leaves, a mainstay crop in the region, still hang on the wires, long-since dried. But there are almost no people.
“About 70 percent or more of the people in the south are already gone,” said Khalid Mansour, the spokesman for the United Nations in Lebanon. “They’ve been displaced.”
From journeys through more than a dozen villages on Tuesday, it appears he’s right; southern Lebanon has been largely depopulated, as the remaining residents took advantage of a 48-hour lull in Israel’s three-week long attacks to flee their destroyed villages. Even in towns that have largely escaped the destruction visited on places such as Zebqine and Qana, there are very few signs of activity. Most storefronts are shuttered, but not all. Except for a thick coating of grime, some stores and cafés look like the owners just stepped away for a moment and would be right back. Homes are usually locked, but one can look in to see old place settings on the table, a land-based version of the legend of the _Mary Celeste_.
It looks like the end of the world.
In Bourj ech Chemali, just outside of Tyre, about 1,500 remain out of some 10,000 people, according to Ali Talib, 57, a long-time resident. In Tibnine itself, a town of about 10,000 people, only about 200 remain according to Lebanese internal security forces. And in the town of Haris, just before Tibnine, only 40 people out of 8,000 remain, according to a woman awaiting a ride to Beirut along with six of her family members.
In all, some 800,000 to 900,000 Lebanese have been forced north from their homes, said Astrid van Genderen Stort, the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. About 150,000 are in Syria, but the rest are stuffed into schools, community centers or the private homes of generous Lebanese.
“The situation is becoming increasingly dire,” said Astrid van Genderen Stort, the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. “Host families are sharing their homes with up to 30 or 40 people. It’s been three weeks. They’re eating into their own reserves.”
The only other comparable mass displacement in recent memory is Kosovo in 1998, she said, where 800,000 people were displaced in the span of a month. And as bad as the displacement was, problems continued after the cease-fire was announced.
As soon as the Serbian forces withdrew, most of the 800,000 poured back across the border to go home. “They were unstoppable,” van Genderen Stort said. For months, the United Nations and other international organizations had to deal with refugees returning to a devastated country, destroyed homes and dead relatives. Much the same will happen in Lebanon, she said.
But for now, the problem is getting the people out of harm’s way, and most of them have largely moved north to Sidon or Beirut. Those too poor or too sick haven’t made it that far, and have instead clustered in the larger towns of the south such as Tibnine, Qana or Tyre, where they squat in school and hospital basements without electricity, surrounded in Stygian blackness and bathed in their own sweat.
With the announcement on Monday of the 48-hour lull in air strikes, hundreds of people emerged from towns across the south. For many, it was their first contact with the outside world in almost three weeks.
Between 500 and 600 refugees made it from the destroyed town of Bint Jbail in the south to the Tibnine Government Hospital, where they boarded buses and headed north to Sidon. About 200 remained in the hospital’s basement Tuesday, said Lebanese internal security officials.
But not all have left. Two brothers, Ali and Hussein Talib, 57 and 54, have stayed in Bourj ech Chemali to keep their general store open. It was one of possibly two stores seen open in the backroads of the south all afternoon. They see their decision to stay open as a combination of duty and defiance.
“The first reason is to help the people who cannot find anything to eat,” said Ali, the older one. “The second reason is to boost their morale.”
My apologies for not posting more. I’ve been having to beg time on satellite modems to file and with only 5-10 minutes at a time to send and receive email, that doesn’t give a lot of time to write blog posts. That said, I’d like to address something.
On several right-wing blogs, including the National Review Online, a comment I made about Hezbollah’s security measures and their “hassling” of journalists has been taken to mean that we’re all Hezbollah stooges here … or something. *This is not true.*
What I wrote was this: “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”
Let’s set aside that the Lebanese Internal Security also has photocopies of our passports. The reason for the hassling and the threat was that a reporter had filmed or described either a launching site or Hezbollah positions. (I’m not sure which.) To the best of my knowledge, that’s been the extent of the hassling. I’m going to get in trouble for this, but I think it’s a reasonable restriction. This is the exact same restrictions placed on journalists by the Israeli army and by the Americans in Iraq. I don’t think threatening journalists is cool at all, and it certainly doesn’t endear me to them, but that has been the extent of Hezbollah’s interference in our coverage.
Why do I think it’s a reasonable restriction? Because I believe in staying neutral as a journalist. It’s not my job to help out the IDF or Hezbollah. Just as I wouldn’t give away Israeli positions, I won’t give away Hezbollah positions. By doing either, I threaten the neutrality that we depend on here for our access and our credibility. Morally, I also think by giving away positions that could get people killed, whether they’re Hezbollah or IDF soldiers, is to aid in the possibly killing of another human being. I’m _really_ not comfortable doing that.
This is mostly academic, however. Most of the time, we never even _see_ Hezbollah. They keep a very low profile and only come out when something happens, such as a bombing. Then the boys with the walkie-talkies appear and wave their arms and yell and generally push the reporters back until the firemen come in and put out the fire or recover bodies. That’s been the extent of my dealings with Hezbollah, and it’s been the case with probably 95 percent of the reporters here, too.
I do not have a Hezbollah “press pass,” as one commenter suggested. They do not hold my passport (they have a photocopy, presumably.) I have neither sought nor received permission from any Hezbollah people to cover anything. No one has prevented me from covering anything. The Palestinians in Rachidiye Refugee Camp did prevent me from taking pictures of their gunmen, although I could still interview them. Everything I’ve reported I’ve either seen with my own eyes, or it has come from trusted non-Hezbollah sources. Like the ambulance story. I spoke with the drivers and I saw the very ambulances. It was not faked, and it was definitely an Israeli missile of some kind that destroyed the ambulances.
As far as Qana, I wasn’t there. I don’t know what the scene was like, other than what my colleagues — who I trust — told me and what I saw on television. As for the death toll going down from 54 to 28, well, that happens. It was apparently a confusing time and the mortician at the al-Bass Government Hospital gave out some numbers that included people also killed that day but in other places. As for why it took so long to get there, well, the strike happened at night and no one travels much after dark here, certainly not in the middle of an Israeli bombardment. I don’t believe Qana was faked, as some bloggers are charging. People like Michelle Malkin are full of it and refuse to see anything with even a scintilla of objectivity or fairness. They are not journalists; they are jokes.
So that’s the latest. I’m having recurring problems finding drivers to take me around, but hopefully that can be solved. I’m also open to story ideas. What would people like to see while I’m in the south awaiting a coming Israeli invasion.