- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

TIBNINE, Lebanon — Thousands of exhausted and hungry Lebanese streamed over the roads and hilltops yesterday, taking advantage of a pause in Israeli bombing to flee from homes and villages that in many cases had been reduced to rubble.

They walked or drove — some pushing their elderly in wheelchairs and some waving white flags — to escape three weeks of shelling and fierce combat between Israeli troops, who focused their fire on suspected missile sites the Hezbollah terrorists have planted in Lebanese villages.

The ground fighting continued in several villages yesterday as Israel said the pause would not become a cease-fire. Jet fighter-bombers conducted isolated air strikes in support of Israeli troops and on suspected Hezbollah targets, accidentally killing one Lebanese soldier in Tyre.

Evacuees in one group said they had set out just after dawn from the town of Bint Jbeil, site of some of the heaviest fighting.

Trudging on foot with meager possessions, they walked first past the Hezbollah fighters and then Israeli soldiers as reconnaissance drones thrummed overhead.

“They were all watching, I saw them,” said a shivering Hiam Saad, 50. She had not eaten for three days and not bathed for much, much longer. “Just the very old” remain in the town, she said. “No shops, no homes, just stone.”

For Roula Bazzi, the weeks of pent-up physical pain, emotional stress and terror erupted once she had shepherded her children and mother to the safety of the Tibnine hospital. Handed a piece of Lebanese flatbread by a stranger, she began weeping, then wailing, her words turning into screams.

“My home is gone, my husband is [abroad,] and we have nothing, nothing, nothing,” she cried, speaking in English. Tears streamed down her cheeks and onto her throat. “My head aches, we are scared, we do not know how this could happen.”

The Bazzis, who walked for four hours to reach Tibnine, had to leave behind Mrs. Bazzi’s diabetic father, a onetime diamond dealer who recently came home from Sierra Leone to live out his days.

“What is this?” she asked, waving the flatbread in the air. “What is this? Is this food? We have not seen this in weeks.” She clutched her frightened son so hard that his shirt twisted in her shaking fingers.

Some families arrived at the hospital relatively clean and calm. Some girls in neat hijabs sat quietly in the shade, while boys chased one another in the sun. Others were clearly shaken.

Small boys and girls clung to relatives, and children far too old to do so nestled into their mothers’ laps. A few sat very still, with the thousand-yard stare of soldiers after combat. One dazed little boy ignored his grandmother’s caress and gazed into a cup of water, unsure whether to drink it or merely hold it.

Dr. Nabil Harkous came to the hospital from Tyre four days ago and has been napping in the squalid emergency room between patients. He has seen about two dozen people a day since the siege of Bint Jbeil began, “but today there will be a lot because this is the first chance they’ve had to escape.”

The hospital was stocked with medicine but rationed generator power and water. Moments later, a large man on a stretcher was wheeled in, his face wounded by shrapnel. This was the first chance that Red Cross officials have had to reach some villages in search of the dead and dying. Workers removed more than 50 bodies from rubble in the village of Srifa, where they have lain since an air strike on July 19, wire agencies reported.

Other trucks tried to reach Qana, where at least 34 children and 22 adults died in an air strike Sunday, said U.N. officials, but some had to turn back because of continued fighting.

Israeli warplanes struck the road connecting northeastern Lebanon to Syria early today and continued to fire artillery in support of the fighting in southeastern Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters fired mortars at unseen Israelis at Misgav Am, near the Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona.

As wave after wave of exhausted families arrived on the grounds of the hospital in Tibnine, men quietly passed out jars of honey, preserved fruits and bread. One woman walked among the new arrivals with a large water bottle, pouring a bit into her hand and lovingly splashing their faces.

The United Nations peacekeepers said they expect to send a convoy to Bint Jbeil in the next day or so, said spokesman Khaled Mansour, but they are “still waiting for the green light” from the Israel Defense Forces.

Mr. Mansour said there are no reliable estimates of how many people remain in the region, but aid agencies are preparing to accommodate thousands from around Bint Jbeil and tens of thousands from other towns and villages along the Israeli border. The Israelis have warned residents to leave, with fliers dropped from the sky and in some cases by telephone.

With little hope of going home soon, most are trying to get to Tyre, to Sidon, to Beirut, even to the United States.

Fatima Yousef Ayoub, from the village of Ainata, was trying to negotiate with a young man who demanded $200 per person for a one-way passage to Beirut. He had plenty of cars, he said. He could take everyone, and they could leave immediately.

But she had only $100 in cash — not nearly enough for her family of six.

“It’s dangerous,” the young man shrugged, walking away in search of richer evacuees.

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