Israeli air strikes have intensified in
southern Lebanon, tearing apart villages near the border. The Shiite
militant group Hezbollah has continued to fire missiles at northern
Israel, despite the massive bombardment of its Lebanese stronghold. The
Israeli Defense Force has warned residents of southern Lebanon to flee for
their lives, but with most of the roads and bridges in the region
destroyed, many people are still stranded.
The little boy squirms in his grandmother's
arms as his father describes the family's escape from their village in
southern Lebanon on Saturday.
Mahmoud Balhas says it normally takes 20 minutes to get from his
village to Sidon, but this trip took three or four hours.
With the main roads and bridges destroyed, hundreds of cars crammed
with people are winding their way through narrow mountain roads leading
out of southern Lebanon. Most of the cars have white bedsheets or T-shirts
tied to their antennas or doors, signaling to
the Israeli planes high above that these are civilian vehicles.
The road out is perilous. Balhas says he passed two burned-out vehicles
on the way to Sidon, still holding the bodies of travelers who were not so
Tens of thousands of refugees have stopped here in Sidon, a mainly
Sunni town on the coast that is considered safer than the surrounding
countryside. Others are heading further north to Beirut, or to the Druze
villages up in the Chouf mountains.
Escaping from the south has become expensive, or even impossible, for
poor families without cars. Some residents of this schoolhouse shelter
report paying up to $300 for rides out of their villages further south.
People who want to leave are also having trouble finding fuel for the
journey. VOA saw at least five gas stations that had been bombed out
between Beirut and Sidon. Further south, the gasoline shortage is reported
to be severe. Balhas says he did not leave home earlier because he does
not have a car, and because he thought the Israeli bombing would only last
a few days. If it were not for his cousin, who does have a car, he might
not have made it.
For this simple farming family, it is hard to believe that their lives
have come to this. Balhas says his wife's father stubbornly refused to
leave his home because he wanted to stay and look after his chicken farm.
But he says the chicken coop was destroyed by a bomb, and his wife's
father was injured and is now in the hospital in Tyre. He says when the
bombing starts, he huddles his children
together and makes loud noises, trying to cover up the noise of the
explosions and turn it into a game.
Volunteer Ibrahim Al-Hariri, a member of the youth Scouts group running
this shelter, says they are trying to help the children there feel as
normal as possible. "We make special programs for small children, boys and
girls. The boys were playing football, basketball, in order to let them
forget, because they are little children and they came here in a very
horrible situation," he says.
For the girls, he says, there is a room with crayons and paper for
drawing. But the stark reality of their daily lives is showing up in the
children's art. "There is the pictures, and you can see airplanes and some
missiles and such things," he says.
Neat rows of crayon and pencil drawings are taped to the school
windows. One little girl drew a dead body engulfed in flames.
Another has drawn the same scene twice, labeled before and after. On
the left side of the page is a brightly colored house, with a red flower
and a smiling yellow sun in the sky. The scene on the right is in stark
black and white, with a shower of bombs falling from an airplane. The
house has been blown to pieces. The sunshine and flower are