Image: Fatima Tehfi
Nasser Nasser  /  AP
Trapped in Yaroun, the epicenter of the Israeli assault on southern Lebanon, for two weeks American citizen Fatima Tehfi and her family flagged down a passing car to escape to Tyre were they hope to be evacuated.
updated 7/26/2006 11:44:54 AM ET 2006-07-26T15:44:54

Clutching his 1-year-old son, Ali Abbas Tehfi pushed his wife and their 2-year-old son into a car and prayed. Trapped for two weeks in a border village at the epicenter of a raging ground battle, the American and his family made their escape Wednesday.

But Tehfi’s elderly grandmother had to be left behind in Yaroun, because she was too frail to travel. He said more Americans were still stuck in the town.

“I can’t even talk about it. It was a disaster. It was worse than a nightmare. I saw dogs and cats on bodies that couldn’t be taken from bombed out houses. We ran from one building to another trying to escape the bombing,” he said.

“It didn’t stop. It didn’t stop even for a day. Everything is finished,” he said.

‘Just trying to stay alive’
Tehfi waited in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre on Wednesday with at least 100 other foreigners, most American, for evacuation out of the country and back home. For Tehfi, home is Los Angeles.

Born, raised and educated in the United States, Tehfi and his wife Fatima came to Lebanon in June to introduce their sons, Hassan and Hussain, to their roots and to family members still living in the country.

But he found himself in a war zone. Yaroun lies in a tiny pocket in southeast Lebanon where Israeli forces have launched their ground incursion across the border, meeting fierce resistance from Hezbollah guerrillas.

In the town of Bint Jbail, just up the road from Yaroun, there were reports of 14 Israeli soldiers killed Wednesday in heavy battles.

In Tyre, 20 miles from Yaroun, Tehfi sat with his wife, sons and parents waiting for a boat to Cyprus — and eventually home.

Two-year-old Hassan has an unruly mob of brown hair and his face was pockmarked with mosquito bites. His brother, Hussain, a chubby baby who hasn’t started walking, was born prematurely and still has breathing problems, his father said. Hussain smiled slightly as he was rocked by his grandmother, Zainab Tehfi.

Ali Abbas Tehfi said people swarmed the cars when they arrived to take evacuees out of Tyre.

“People just jumped into the car, some even without shoes and some people just seemed to come out of the walls. We didn’t know where anyone was before, everyone was just trying to stay alive,” he said.

Unknown number of trapped Americans
The expatriates said the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had worked to arrange their evacuation. They didn’t know the details.

Tehfi said many more Americans were still trapped in Yaroun. “I don’t know who is alive and who is dead. If you weren’t in the main area when the cars came you were left behind,” he said.

The United States expressed concern Tuesday about an unknown number of Americans stranded in south Lebanon without safe passage out. “We are aware that there are an undetermined number of Americans at locations in southern Lebanon,” the State Department said.

Some 15,000 Americans have been evacuated from Lebanon since fighting erupted between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas two weeks ago. The last scheduled boatload of U.S. citizens was to leave Beirut Wednesday afternoon, officials said.

‘Pretty remarkable’
Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, the U.S. evacuation commander, said everything possible had been done to assure the safety of Americans.

“As long as there’s one American here who would like to depart, that’s what we’re here for and that’s our job, and i would agree with you that i think our efforts to date here have been pretty remarkable,” he said.

Tehfi’s father, Abbas, stepped forward, a diminutive man in his 60s with dark brown eyes and two weeks of gray stubble on his face.

His voice was strong until he began to talk of his family left behind in Yaroun.

“My mother is still there in Yaroun, still there,” he said, his voice choked. He turned away, bowed his head and cried.

Abbas Tehfi said he rescued an 8-month-old boy during an airstrike only to see him die hours later. “I thought, my God, he will live. But two hours later he started to throw up and he died,” he recalled.

Before the war, Yaroun was a village of about 6,000. Ali Abbas Tehfi said it is nearly empty now, with most residents fleeing and many killed in what he described as indiscriminate bombing.

‘We couldn’t help them’
Samair Reda, a young California woman who also escaped Yaroun, said the bombs were hitting anything that moved.

“I don’t care if it is military fighting military. That is their business, but I don’t understand why the people are being killed. We don’t know how many are dead. So many houses are collapsed. I saw myself people under the cement blocks but we couldn’t help them,” she said.

Reda’s daughter, Nejmah, a shy girl who tried to hide behind her mother, turned 2 on July 17.

“On her birthday we ran twice to escape the bombing,” she said, adding that her husband had risked his life to search for food but the family still faced severe food shortages and was nearly out of powdered milk for their daughter.

Reda and her family arrived in Yaroun on July 11, the day before the bombing blitz began in response to a cross-border Hezbollah attack that left eight Israeli soldiers dead and two captured.

Nejmah’s face was covered in small red sores from mosquito bites. Her long, brown hair was pulled back from her face. “I haven’t been able to wash her. We didn’t even have time to unpack our luggage when the bombing started. I have been wearing the same clothes since it began,” she said.

Evacuees: Where to begin?
Exhausted and still shaking from their ordeal, the rescued Americans interrupted each other to try to describe the horror. Many had never heard a bomb before. Their closest experience had been war movies.

“I don’t know where to even begin. I saw parts of bodies. I saw small children and old people and women stuck in the rubble. But you know what was so hard was not being able to help. My father kept sending me to look for my grandmother and I was scared but we had to go out and try to find people,” said Hassan Ghachan, a high school student from Belle, Calif., whose eyes widened as he recalled the horrific scenes.

Ghachan said the memories still haunt him. “Last night I woke up I thought I heard a rocket.”

“And on the road coming to Tyre yesterday we saw cars that had been rocketed with dead people still inside. There were so many cars I couldn’t count. I couldn’t even look at some of them,” he said.

‘It was a massacre’
The daily bombing of the village by Israeli jets separated families. Reda has lost track of her sister and brother-in-law. “We don’t know where they are, whether they made it out alive,” she said.

As she spoke, several other women approached. Each had a story of relatives who were missing or feared dead, or who they prayed had escaped.

“I tell you honestly, from my heart, I love everyone. I don’t care their religion or their belief,” Tehfi said. “But I don’t understand what I saw. It was a massacre. It was a massacre.”

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