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Survivors emerge from battered village

Hours after a promised suspension of Israeli air attacks, the civilian survivors of some of the most intense fighting in the war clambered from the wreckage of the Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil.
An elderly Lebanese woman sits amidst th
An elderly Lebanese woman sits amid rubble next to an abandoned wheelchair in the southern border town of Bint Jbeil, on Monday. Rubble covers the streets of the flashpoint town, which once housed over 40,000 residents, but is now deserted due to the fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas.Hassan Ammar / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The ghosts climbed out of the rubble in this southern town Monday.

Hours after a promised suspension of Israeli air attacks, the civilian survivors of some of the most intense fighting in the war clambered from the wreckage. They were shrunken figures, dehydrated and hungry. Some had lived on candy bars, others on pieces of dry bread. Some were shellshocked, their faces blank, the expression that comes from living under bombing for 20 days. One never made it. He was carried out on a stretcher, flies landing on lifeless eyes that were still open.

Behind them stumbled Zeinab Diabis, so old and stooped that her back was parallel to the ground. Her hands groped along splintered concrete. To anyone who would listen, she cried for her brother, Ahmed, who was still trapped a half-mile away in the basement of a house.

"Who's going to bring him?" she shouted. "Who's going to show them where he is?"

"God answer my prayers!"

Bint Jbeil once numbered 30,000 people and was known in Lebanon as the "capital of resistance," a reputation won for its role in Hezbollah's fight against the Israeli occupation that ended in 2000. Today, after nearly three weeks of bombing and days of combat that pinned down Israeli troops and inflicted their heaviest losses of the war, its center is a forsaken panorama of destruction and devastation, nothing untouched.

Charred carcasses of cars were tossed in deep craters along entire blocks that were pulverized. Two ambulances were hurled on their sides, as was a burned firetruck, next to waist-high rubble that filled alleyways. A string of fluttering red, orange and green flags that once marked a shopping festival were now entwined with the casing of an Israeli artillery shell along a street strewn with cinder block, corrugated tin, wood, wires and shards of car lights. Splintered fluorescent tubes hung from awnings like funereal chimes. At times the only sounds were the cries of cats.

"What's it going to take to bring this back?" asked Ali Hakim, an 80-year-old resident, emerging from rubble that was once his house, where 70 people had taken shelter during the fiercest bombing. "It's a nightmare. It's been literally taken back to zero."

"Just because of a certain group of people, do the Israelis have to destroy everyone and everything?"

The word had spread quickly Monday morning that there would be no Israeli air raids for 48 hours.

Dozens started fleeing north from Bint Jbeil, and villages next to the Israeli border, along charred wadis. A man put his belongings on a piece of cardboard, which he pulled along the street with a string. Two others pushed a woman in a wheelchair along the winding road. A group trudged ahead, with plastic bags, satchels, suitcases and a green sports bag packed with prescription medicine. One flew a white flag.

Alaa Dagher was ahead of them, carrying four children in a wheelbarrow. An ambulance stopped, letting the children board, along with his sister and grandmother.

"Men can walk," one of the Lebanese Red Cross workers told him.

The region around Bint Jbeil, like most of southern Lebanon, delivers Hezbollah much of its support, and signs of the organization's reach were still evident in many villages. Along one rural street, a green truck without license plates was concealed by camouflage. On the road from Bint Jbeil, two men loaded the trunk of a Mercedes with green boxes of ammunition. The corpse of what appeared to be a fighter, his torso barely intact, lay in a grassy field. An ambulance worker covered it with a blanket, anchoring it with two stones. Hezbollah operatives on motorcycles and foot traveled the streets with walkie-talkies, sometimes helping with the evacuation.

"Everyone's leaving," said Ali Bazzi, one of those fleeing.

Along the street, others erupted in anger. "Twenty days!" one man shouted. "There are people still buried under the rubble. Until now, they're there. Go see the suffering in Bint Jbeil. Go! Go!" He held a clump of parsley. "God is greater than Israel!"

Bazzi was quieter, as he walked with his relatives.

"Bint Jbeil is all destroyed," he said. "No one can go back. The whole village is destroyed."

An abandoned green Mercedes marked the entrance, its windows shattered. A little beyond was a red van, its roof struck by a rocket. The doors were ripped open to expose an espresso machine, its chrome still shiny.

"We're feeling guilty leaving people behind," said Fouad Taha, a physician and the director of Salah Ghandour Hospital. "What can someone do at this point? If he's injured now, he's going to bleed to death until he dies."

The hospital was darkened; fuel for the generator ran out Saturday. Pieces of the roof were scattered on the floor. The door was blown into the lobby. Taha was wearing someone else's scrubs; his were too bloody and there was nowhere to wash them.

"Now the cats are wandering in," he said, pointing down a sunlit hallway.

Taha was the last doctor left at Bint Jbeil's 42-bed hospital, along with a staff of five. It used to number 40. Ten bodies were still in the morgue. Two days before, he said, a rocket hit the room where he had been sleeping, scattering concrete over his mattress on the floor. Just a few minutes earlier, he had gone to join a friend, who had offered him tea in another room.

The hospital was affiliated with Hezbollah's sprawling welfare apparatus. "The resistance is your glory and your pride so support it," read a yellow-and-blue box for donations in the corner of the lobby. But Taha was not in a martial mood. "I just want to make sure there are no civilians left in Bint Jbeil," he said. "I have 48 hours," he added. "I assume today is okay, and tomorrow I'm leaving."

Red Cross ambulances tried to enter the city around 11 a.m. At first, there were few signs of life in the devastated alleys, then slowly, figures, almost like specters, began crawling out of the homes.

"This is my house here," said Amin Ayyoub, a 77-year-old resident, who trudged up a hill.

He pointed at a stone building that he said was 50 years old. Rubble was piled in the doorway, leaving a three-foot high entrance. Next to it was a car with two chunks of asphalt on its trunk. "God protect me," he said, gazing at it. "God take care of me."

He led Red Cross workers down the street, trying to rescue elderly residents still hiding, most too frightened by the fighting to leave.

"Someone's down there," he said, pointing wildly. "She's all alone."

A worker emerged from the basement with Mariam Sharara cradled in his arms. In her eighties, maybe older, she was blind, so dehydrated after 20 days of hiding that she could hardly move. They set her against a wall, and she slumped to her side, listless.

"Is there anyone else in there?" a worker asked Ayyoub.

He gestured, and they went deeper into the alley, climbing over rubble as they looked for others.

Coming up the hill was Zeinab Diabis, with two other women. In a blue floral veil and a blue and white dress, she didn't know her age. Hunched over, she felt her way forward with her hands, crusted with dirt. Her story was like others told Monday: as many as 20 days in the dark, with too little food, dirty water, the respites rare between the bombings. Some said they had gone to as many as seven different basements seeking shelter. Most were too poor, old or scared to try to flee the city.

"We couldn't eat," she said. "We went without food for so long. We survived on a small piece of dry bread."

Red Cross workers were overwhelmed with the search, and had to leave Diabis behind, in the road. Even after they had gone, she kept pleading for help in finding her younger brother, Ahmed, still trapped in a home she had shared with him for 30 years. She had checked on him before she left, telling him she would come back with help. She could crawl if she had to, she said; blind, he couldn't.

"He's in the house, he's by himself," she said, pointing to the street below. "It's a pity. There's no one there for him."

"God help him," she said. "He doesn't have anyone."

A stretcher carried a body out, and she shuffled toward it.

"That's not him," she said, shaking her head.

With the help of others, Diabis clambered over the rubble to what was left of the Imam Hussein Mosque. She crawled over clods of concrete, then a wrought iron fence. She cut her toe on a wire, stopping only for a moment as it began to bleed.

She ignored pleas for her to go further, where other survivors were gathering.

"Don't take me without him," she said. "I don't want you to bring me before him."

Another stretcher passed. "I want to see who they're bringing," she called out. She looked. "No, that's not him, either."

Other survivors followed behind, overtaking her. One was Mehdi al-Hakim and his wife Samiha. They had hid for 18 days.

"This is the first time I've seen the sun," he said. "How could I have left with a war going on around me?"

In the alleys, people carried the weak and the old on their shoulders or cradled them like children. Hezbollah activists helped evacuate 80-year-old Mariam Saghir, her foot crippled, on a ladder turned into a stretcher. One of the activists carried a walkie-talkie, another a pistol. Someone then brought an orange stretcher, propping her head on two bags stuffed with her clothes.

"How much farther?" she pleaded. She rolled to the side, flies gathering on her face. "I want to stay here."

"We're almost there," one of the men reassured her.

A dozen other people gathered along the curb, collapsing with exhaustion or begging for help. Children were expressionless, neither smiling nor crying, seemingly in shock.

Diabis kept feeling her way. She stopped every few minutes, once under the collapsed awning of the Abdel-Majid Habib Birri gas station, where a tattered yellow Hezbollah banner hung limply across the street. She finally reached the others, waiting.

A few hours later, a cry went out.

In the basement of a house, Ahmed, unshaven, was sitting in a baseball cap and dirty pinstriped pants. At first he refused to leave, then was told his sister wanted him to. He asked for his brown leather shoes, locked the door and took the key. With the help of others, he made his way, gingerly walking with a cane or riding piggyback, over rubble and a electricity pylon split like a toothpick.

"Where's my sister?" he kept asking.

Sitting in an ambulance, she finally saw him. The moment of recognition was gradual. Her eyes were too weak.

"Bring him here," Diabis finally exclaimed. It was a shout, though her voice could not muster it. "Have him stay with me."

They got into a white Volvo, its fender dangling, its front headlight hanging by a wire, headed for the hospital in Tibnin.

"God saved us," she said quietly. "He didn't have anyone."