Lebanese flee in panic after evacuation order

Dazed families dodge bomb craters, Israeli jets in desperate flight northward to escape violence in the south

July 21, 2006|By MEGAN STACK

TYRE, Lebanon -- The Israeli orders spread at dawn yesterday, by radio, leaflet and menacing cell-phone text messages: All civilians south of the Litani River should clear out immediately or risk death.

Panicked by violence and the evacuation order, families piled into cars and poured north on one-lane dirt roads and bomb-pocked highways. Smoke boiled into the sky as bombs rumbled in the hills. Israeli jets flew overhead. As evacuating Lebanese sped past abandoned cars, they glimpsed corpses inside.

Many people rode in fear, their faces drawn with fatigue. They tied strips of white cloth to antennas, and waved white rags and undershirts as if they could flag away death. Some rode in convoys with neighbors. One family carried a cow in the back of a pickup truck.

When they hit the main coastal highway and found themselves exposed to the sea and sky, they drove as fast as their rusting cars could go. They raced along, terrified that stopping for an instant would invite a strike from above.

Craters the size of minivans gaped in the road. Eerie quiet settled over hillside villages, where houses stood shuttered in the shade of orange and pomegranate trees.

Many people didn't know where they were going or when they would return. Having endured death and destruction for more than a week in the crossfire between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli forces, the last holdouts in the 20-mile-wide strip between Israel and the river were being forced from their homes.

Asked where she was going, 65-year-old Zakiya Aour burst into tears.

"Wherever we can," she said. Her 80-year-old husband had just undergone surgery and was still bleeding, she said. He sat on a bench and leaned on a walking stick, his eyes glassy.

The couple had arrived at a hotel lobby in Tyre with a small mountain of luggage, a bird in a red cage and a grown daughter who was deafened in an Israeli missile attack in the invasion of 1982.

"I've heard people say that if the foreigners leave, get out because [Israeli forces] are going to attack," Aour said. "Can't you do something for us?"

Lebanon's displaced, who are turning up here with elderly kinfolk and babies in tow, spoke of villages besieged for days while missiles crashed down. Many seem too dazed and exhausted to form escape plans.

Civil structure appears to have broken down. The dead are rotting in the rubble. Food and water are running out. Nearly 100 bodies have piled up in a poorly refrigerated container at a hospital in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tyre; there is too much violence to pick up the dead or conduct funerals.

How the evacuation messages were transmitted to cellular phones was unclear. The order was repeated on Voice of the South, an Israel-run radio station that had gone silent after soldiers withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 - only to be resurrected last week as combat flared between Israeli forces and the Hezbollah militiamen who control South Lebanon.

Asked about the evacuation orders, an Israeli military spokesman warned that "it's for their overall safety not to be there."

But many lack the money or transportation to evacuate, and roads and bridges are impassable.

"We're going to sleep in the streets. Where can we go?" said Jihad Daoud, 22, who was stranded with two cousins in a hospital in Tyre. His family had been driving through an orchard, looking for a way to the main coastal highway, when a missile struck near their car, lifting it into the air. His cousins' faces bore purple bruises and raw cuts. Seriously injured family members had been evacuated to Beirut by the Red Cross.

"I'm still in shock," Daoud said.

Megan Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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