- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

BINT JBEIL, Lebanon — Lebanese sifted through the ruins of shattered towns and villages yesterday, looking for survivors or simply fragments of their former lives, with scant regard for Israeli warnings that it is not yet safe to return.

Rescue crews digging with shovels and bare hands pulled out bodies that could not be recovered while the fighting raged.

Hardly a building remained intact in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold that became the scene of more than a week of intense ground combat.

“My God, my God,” said an elderly woman, her voice so hoarse it was almost inaudible. She stood at the crest of town to look down at the destruction, weeping.

Rescue workers and young men scrambled over the wreckage to reach the rubble of a home that had entombed an entire family.

Doctors from Qatar worked beside townspeople to pry loose huge rocks and twisted steel. They labored for hours, with the smell of decay growing more intense as they got closer.

Despite the thousands of returning residents who have clogged roads since dawn on Monday, only a handful of visibly shocked returnees could be seen in the streets of this and other villages.

“There are very few people here, and they are hiding,” said Mathias Lenggenhager, a Geneva-based relief manager and agronomist for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC estimates that fewer than 300 families stayed in southern Lebanon throughout the siege.

Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets warning civilians not to return home until international troops are deployed because “the situation will remain dangerous.”

Relief workers yesterday made it to villages where they fear some residents have been sheltering for a month without provisions. But the agency found few residents to accept food, blankets and hygiene kits. Wire services said relief workers found 15 bodies across southern Lebanon.

Returning to Bint Jbeil is no easy matter, which explains why so few families have made it back.

There is a three- to four-hour traffic jam to get across the Litani River, and the roads are so badly bombed that every few miles the surface gives way to a crater deep enough to swallow a school bus.

Once inside the town, one finds entire streets lost under rubble and pieces of furniture visible through sheared off walls.

The mosque is awash in broken concrete and accented with burned, flipped-over cars.

For the Dbaga family, the pain was overwhelming.

They returned yesterday afternoon to their home in nearby Ainata, but found it leveled.

With nothing left to claim, the family piled back into their car, and spent their last bit of money on gasoline and tried to drive away. But the car bottomed-out on the rough road, the gas tank ruptured.

Despite the assistance of a half-dozen strangers, the car hemorrhaged fuel and the family was stranded.

Strangers passed food and water between vehicles and freely shared cigarettes.

Lebanese soldiers, who are to be deployed in the south as part of a peace agreement brokered by the United Nations, have been working round-the-clock to patch roads and build crossings over the Litani River.

Traditionally, the Lebanese army has maintained only a cosmetic presence in an area controlled by Hezbollah guerrillas.

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