Lebanese town bears the brunt of conflict


BINT JBAIL, Lebanon -- Smeared with dirt and covered in flies, the woman sat dazed and stranded in the rubble for days. When she looked up yesterday to see people from the outside world approaching through the morning heat, the words tumbled from between her broken teeth.

"God brought you," said Libi Ibrahim, blinking into the sun. "I didn't want to die alone. Don't leave me."

A drive into the bomb-wrecked city of Bint Jbail is a voyage into the epicenter of the war between Israel and Hezbollah. A short distance from the Israeli border, this village of rolling hills and olive groves has suffered some of the fiercest fighting of this sudden conflict. Now the town is a wrecked and ghostly place; the days of Israeli shelling and airstrikes laid the city center to waste.

It's impossible to tell where the streets used to dip and twist through the shops and homes in the heart of downtown; roads have been washed out by wreckage. Mangled buildings form artificial hills, jagged with broken glass, punctuated occasionally by a mosque minaret or a singed palm tree poking lopsided toward the sky. Mosques, shops, homes -- all were hammered.

The weakest, it seemed, were left to endure the attacks: Elderly and disabled, shell-shocked and starving, they came clambering out of the ruins. Their transistor radios had brought word that Israel had declared a temporary halt to bombardments. Entire families emerged from basements and caves, and picked their way carefully through the chunks of rubble, sometimes barefooted.

Ibrahim had been sleeping in a shadowy doorway of charred cinder blocks for six days, she reckoned. She was too confused to explain what she had done before that. She had been drinking muddy water. She was nearly deaf from the bombings.

Ibrahim, a widow, has a grown daughter in Beirut, but had no way to reach the capital. She couldn't even make it up the street, washed over by tumbled walls, fallen power lines and broken glass. When she tried to walk, she fell down.

"I'm an old woman," she said. "I get tangled up in the electrical wires and the stones."

For days, Israel warned residents to leave the area, before sending in ground troops to take this town, a Hezbollah stronghold and the source of many cross-border rocket salvos. But after losing at least eight soldiers in an ambush, Israel switched to a massive rocket and artillery campaign that pulverized broad swaths of the city.

It is still impossible to know how many people died in Bint Jbail. Although at least one body came to light yesterday, nobody has begun the job of combing through the rubble for corpses. They have barely begun to claim the village's living.

Some of them dashed over the piles of rubble with duffels and plastic supermarket bags stuffed with clothes bouncing along at their sides, as if they were afraid a bomb might fall before they could escape. Others seemed paralyzed, uncertain of where to go.

Red Cross ambulances reached the edge of the debris, but much of the town could only be navigated on foot. Many of the people stuck here were too feeble and sick to make the walk out. In the end, journalists ended up hoisting them onto their backs and carrying them to ambulances. One elderly woman was stretched out on a ladder and hauled out.

Unexploded missiles glinted in the sun. Deep bomb craters yawned from the ground. Walls had been demolished until there was almost no shade -- only the enormous sky, a pitiless sun and silence.

A wrinkled woman named Sita Hamayed had propped herself up against a shuttered shop, wild-eyed. Her fingers were coated with clay dust, as if she had been digging. "We were under the rubble," she said as the groaning sound of an Israeli drone filled the village.

"When I hear that plane it scares me," she said. "God help me. Let them come and take me away."

At her side, her brother -- a mentally handicapped man with gray hair -- sat cross-legged on the ground.

"Are they going to hit us again today?" Hamayed asked.

An old man sat on the hood of an abandoned car that rose from the sea of rubble. His feet dangled, bare and swollen, from beneath his pajama cuffs.

"Our house fell on top of us," his sister, Roda Bazzi, said dazedly. She squinted from beneath her headscarf, as if she were trying to remember something. She babbled, then fell into silence.

"It's been days without food or water," she said in a slow tone that was both apologetic and amazed. "I'm talking and I don't know what I'm saying. I can't even walk."

The only hospital here is dark; fuel for the generators ran out over the weekend. The staff has dwindled from 90, including 40 doctors, to five people. The only doctor left shoved a gurney coated with the dust into the lobby, where a thin wash of daylight illuminated a single bottle of iodine.

Nobody bothered to wash the blood stains off the floor and counter. Nothing looked -- or smelled -- sterilized. An Israeli bomb had crashed through the roof of the doctors' sleeping quarters; twisted beams filtered a shaft of sunlight.

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