As Cease-Fire Holds, Lebanese Dig for the War’s Victims in the Rubble of Many Towns
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
Published: August 16, 2006
SREIFA, Lebanon, Aug. 15 — The reality of the war came out of the rubble in bits and pieces on Tuesday — an army boot in one town, a gold wedding ring in another, a pair of jeans elsewhere — all the pieces of lives lost in the destruction wrought by the monthlong conflict that came to a halt on Monday in a tenuous cease-fire.
On Tuesday, secrets buried in southern Lebanon’s ruins began to emerge as Lebanese Red Cross workers, health workers and Hezbollah members set upon the heaps of stone and concrete in towns along the Israeli border, digging out bodies of men, women and children trapped there for weeks. The work will last for weeks in towns with names that have become synonymous with tragedy.
In Ainata, about three miles from the Israeli border, Red Cross workers pulled out eight decomposed bodies buried in a home that was bombed 10 days after the war began. In Bint Jbail, a few miles away, rescue workers tried to dig out at least four bodies from a house near the old market and, in Ait al Shaab, Hezbollah members reportedly removed the bodies of five of their fighters from the debris.
They were just a small portion of the estimated hundreds of bodies thought to have been lying in the wreckage, but the act of digging promised some closure for a country struggling to rebuild. Bodies wrapped in clear plastic tarpaulins were carted away in ambulances with the horns blaring, most of them ending up in the central morgue in Tyre, where the piles of dead have continued to grow.
Late Tuesday, Lebanese Army soldiers removed 31 bodies from a refrigerator truck near the morgue and buried them in a temporary mass grave adjacent to two other mass graves that were set up weeks earlier.
In Ainata, Abbas Khanafer trembled as rescue workers began digging out at least 16 people buried in a house near the town center, including 7 members of his own family who had taken shelter there. In half a day of digging, eight bodies, some of them in pieces, emerged. Among them were the remains of an elderly woman and a younger one, and workers removed a gold wedding band and jewelry in hopes of identifying them. But as Mr. Khanafer examined the bodies, he could find nothing he recognized.
Mr. Khanafer lost three other relatives in the town of Marun al Ras in another bombing, as well as his elder sister, who he said was shot by Israeli troops in their parents’ home in Ainata when Israeli troops clashed with Hezbollah fighters in the vicinity.
“I did everything they told us to do, I tried to do it all right,” Mr. Khanafer said, referring to Israeli warnings to civilians to evacuate southern Lebanon. He asked a friend what he should do to have his relatives buried in a temporary grave. “Now, everything I have left is in Sidon,” he said.
Mr. Khanafer had fled north to Sidon with his elderly parents, his wife and children and a niece four days after the bombing in Ainata, and two weeks ago returned in hopes of digging up the bodies of his relatives when Israel called a 48-hour suspension of airstrikes. But there was not enough time to retrieve them.
On Tuesday, he came back to Ainata to try again. As the Red Cross workers continued digging, he drove with Hezbollah officials with an ambulance in tow to his parents’ home overlooking the Israeli border, where his sister’s body lay. The stench permeated the house and the floor crawled with maggots, as her body was wrapped in a plastic tarpaulin to be transported to a hospital in the nearby village of Tibnin.
Nowhere was the scene as stark as in Sreifa, where workmen picked through fields of rubble were the Hay el-Birki neighborhood once stood. Up to 18 buildings were pulverized when Israeli warplanes struck the neighborhood on July 19, killing dozens, said Hussein Kamaleldin, a local official.
Just days ago, Israeli warplanes pounded the town again as Hezbollah fighters moved into the area to face off with Israeli troops who landed in the hills nearby. Fierce fighting and bombing continued even into early Monday morning, until the United Nations cease-fire took hold at 8 a.m., residents said.
Muhammad Jaber looked on quietly as a crowd of men gathered around an excavator reaching deep into the rubble of what was once a three-story building here in Sreifa on Tuesday, wondering what he might have done differently to induce his son to leave.
“I told him to come with me, but he wouldn’t,” Mr. Jaber said, speaking of his 27-year-old son Bilal. He said he had a hunch why his son wouldn’t leave, but he refused to elaborate.
“He said he wanted to stay with his friends,” Mr. Jaber said. “I called him after we left, but he said he just wouldn’t leave.”
Within minutes, several men dove into an opening in the rubble and pulled out an army boot, then a walkie-talkie, a bulletproof vest and a machine gun. They belonged to one of Bilal’s friends. The jovial workmen went silent as Hezbollah security men told photographers to stop taking pictures, and Mr. Jaber’s hunch was confirmed: his son was one of the militia fighters.
Mr. Kamaleldin, the Sreifa official, estimated that up to two-thirds of the town’s homes and buildings were demolished, leaving more than 43 people buried in the rubble. A majority of them were fighters belonging to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party, residents said.
“This will now be a place of tragedy and sorrow,” said Hussein Nazzal, who survived unscathed in his house, while all the buildings behind his house were destroyed. “Who could possibly deserve to die a death like this?”
Hours later, Mr. Jaber sat with his wife on the family porch grieving for his dead son, who was married with three children.
“I have seen all the wars and survived them, and three of my boys battled the Israelis in 1996,” he said. “I was lucky then, because they all came home. But this time, it seems, God decided to take one away.”