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The Smell of Dead People
Babak Dehghanpisheh
Newsweek (MSNBC)
Monday, July 31, 2006

A man screams for help as he carries the body of a girl killed in the Israeli strike on Qana on July 30 (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP-Getty Images)
The buildings looked like they had been turned inside out. Dawoud Bazzi leaned on a jagged chunk of concrete and stepped over a metal beam twisted like a pretzel. On both sides were row after row of burned out structures, some with their roofs leaning down at odd angles. “These were shops,” says Bazzi, 45, with a sweep of his arm.

It was Bazzi’s first visit to the center of Bint Jbeil since the Israeli strikes against Lebanon began almost three weeks ago. When Israel launched its retaliation for Hizbullah’s July 11 cross-border capture of two Israeli soldiers, Bazzi holed up in his house on the outskirts of the small town in southern Lebanon, sending his family to seek safety in the the relative safety of Tibnine, a larger town about 15 minutes drive up the road. Today, as his country mourned the deaths of those in nearby Qana, Bazzi was discovering that his own hometown may have been even harder hit. “This is depressing,” he said, peering into a charred tire shop surrounded by deep bomb craters and pulverized buildings. “I thought it would be better than this.”

Like Bazzi, thousands of people in southern Lebanon, were on the move today. After the Israeli military announced a 48-hour freeze on airstrikes, many civilians took the opportunity to head for safer ground, scrounge for food or try to find relatives and friends. Highways south and east of the port city of Tyre were packed with cars flying white flags. Several families convoyed out on tractors, some even walked along winding seaside roads lined with banana trees holding white flags. The white flag wasn’t a guarantee of safety: near Bint Jbeil there were a handful of bombed cars with white flags, some with mattresses, pillows and suitcases still sitting in the trunk.

In Bint Jbeil, one extended family of nearly two dozen people crept out of their basement cautiously in mid-afternoon. The dull boom of artillery shells or bombs could be heard in the distance. They squinted in the bright sunlight and dragged their bags down a steep slope. “Ya Allah, Ya Allah,” a middle-aged woman in the group shouted. She dropped her suitcase and gestured at the buildings around her with two hands. “We are not fighting them, they are fighting us.” Six bedrolls were laid out in their basement which reeked of dank sweat. The floor of the house was covered with broken glass and the refrigerator had a bagful of cucumbers, a few garlic cloves and jars of spices inside.

An elderly Lebanese woman sits amidst the rubble next to an abandoned wheelchair in Bint Jbeil on July 31 (Hassan Ammar / AFP-Getty Images)
For his part, Bazzi, a construction worker wearing a cream-colored shirt and jeans, said he wouldn’t leave Bint Jbeil. As he walked over debris toward the center of town, he gagged slightly and put his hand over his mouth. “That’s the smell of dead people,” he said.

The director of the city’s main hospital said between 60 to 70 bodies had been pulled from the wreckage today. They had died over a period of days, but medical workers had been unable to retrieve the bodies due to heavy shelling and bombardment.

More than a dozen elderly people walked around the ruins in a daze, some were carried out on stretchers. One man, who said he was 79, hobbled through the ruins on a wooden cane beside a bombed fire truck. Two young men loaded him up on their backs and carried him to a flat-bed truck a short distance away.

Bint Jbeil is traditionally seen as a Hizbullah stronghold and to, many residents, a symbol of resistance against the Jewish state. A singed green and yellow Hizbullah flag was fluttering above the market today and monuments of a tank and an anti-aircraft battery sit nearby. Murals of clerics revered by the town residents, like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Raghed Harb, Hizbullah’s first general secretary, stand at main squares, and many have now been damaged by shrapnel.

In the past two weeks, Bint Jbeil and the surrounding hillside communities have been the scene of intense fighting between the Israeli military and Hizbullah fighters. Both parties issued statements claiming victory and control of the town. A handful of town residents today said they didn’t see fighters in the streets or rockets fired from inside the city in the past couple of weeks.

Bazzi says he never saw fighters around his house on the edge of town, though he says he was hunkered down inside most of the time. Looking at the destruction around him today, Bazzi was angry at both sides. “It’s a dirty war,” he said. "Nobody wants it."

Bint Jbeil is about 10 miles southeast of Qana, where the war claimed the highest death toll in a single incident of the conflict so far. Some 56 people, many mothers and children, died there yesterday when a house in the town was bombed by Israeli aircraft. Israel apologized and said that the killing of the civilians was an accident in a town targeted because it was the launching pad for Hizbullah rockets into Israel, but enraged Lebanese had little patience with this argument. For many, the incident was a painful reminder of the killing of more than 100 civilians in an Israeli attack on a United Nations compound in the same town 10 years before.

An angry crowd of thousands descended on a United Nations building in central Beirut shortly after hearing the news about Qana, breaking windows and trashing furniture. Fouad Siniora, the prime minister, said he had told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to scrap her visit to Beirut until a full ceasefire is negotiated.

As recriminations continued, so did the political fallout. Israel promised the temporary suspension of its air offensive, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said there would be no ceasefire. U.S. President George W. Bush, meanwhile, acknowledged growing international pressure for an immediate end to the attacks, but dismissed any idea of simply “stopping for the sake of stopping” without a plan for lasting peace.

Like many incidents in this conflict, which has taken a high civilian casualty toll on both sides, the full story about Qana and Bint Jbeil may never be known. In interviews, half a dozen survivors of the Qana attack said there was no Hizbullah activity in their area and no fighters in the house that was hit. 

Whatever the truth, the ghastly human suffering was undeniable. On Sunday afternoon, a huge U.N. front-end loader clawed away at the wreckage of the house, pulling rebar, concrete and cinderblocks away in huge chunks. Dozens of blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers from China and Ghana were overseeing the rescue effort along with a handful of Red Cross volunteers and Lebanese Army soldiers. With every load of dirt pulled away, a handful of the workers leaned in to see if there were any signs of a body. At one point, a Red Cross worker jogged away from the site holding a piece of flesh in a blue napkin. Scraps of a child’s coloring book and football star trading cards were scattered in the ash and dust near the building.

At the time of the bombing, members of two large families, the Heshams and the Shalhoubs, were inside.

Hala Ahmad Shalhoub had tucked her two daughters, Fatima, 3, and Roqaya, 1, in beside her on a mattress in the basement, and went to sleep around 10 p.m. Several of her family members were bunkered down in the basement beside her.

At approximately 1 a.m., the building was hit. “There was a huge sound,” says Shalhoub, 24. “Rocks and pieces of the ceiling were falling around me.” The explosion pushed Shalhoub face down into a pile of dirt with her two daughters pinned to her back.

“I heard my baby- mmm mmm,” croaks Shalhoub, mimicking her daughter’s cries. She tried calling out to her children but couldn’t move. A short while later, her sister Zeinab began digging her out of the rubble with the help of another female family member.

“The babies were still hot. I thought they were still alive,” says Shalhoub. When she was finally dragged out, her sister Zeinab noticed that her tongue was covered in dust. Then she saw the children.

“I picked up Roqaya and she was cold,” says Zeinab in a monotone. Both of the children died in the explosion and Shalhoub also lost her parents, a brother, a sister and several members of her extended family.

The sisters shared a room at the Jebel Amel hospital in Tyre on Sunday afternoon. Hala’s head was swathed in bandages and she had draped a light brown scarf over her head. Blood had seeped through and dried on her pillow.

“I’m not sad about my kids,” says Hala. “Now they’re martyrs in heaven.” 

Zeinab, hooked up to an IV in the bed beside her, adds, “Our martyrs are in heaven and the Israeli dead are in hell.” When Zeinab was brought to the hospital she asked the staff not to wash her scarf so she could smell the blood of her dead relatives.

Asked about Hizbullah fighters operating in their area, Zeinab shouted, “Lies, lies. All lies.”
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