Monday, July 31, 2006

Killings at Qana - Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone

Yahoo! News
Killings at Qana
Israeli missiles hit a legendary biblical city, killing dozens of civilians in one house, the majority of them women and children.
By Kevin Sites, Sun Jul 30, 10:54 PM ET

QANA, Lebanon - In the worst incident of civilian casualties in Lebanon since the beginning of
Israel's offensive against Hezbollah over two weeks ago, at least 25 people were killed early Sunday, including at least 19 children, when missiles struck a house where many were huddled in the basement, according to Red Cross and Lebanese army officials at the scene.

Reports of the death toll varied, as is often the case with an event as chaotic as this. News agencies reported that more than 50 were killed, citing conflicting numbers from officials and eyewitnesses.

In the chaotic aftermath at Qana, casualty figures differed. » View

Amid an international outcry over the attack, Israel agreed to halt its bombing campaign in Lebanon for 48 hours pending a probe of the incident. Indeed, early Monday morning here, aside from the sound of drone aircraft, there are no sounds of jets over Lebanese skies for the first time in weeks.

Ghazi Addibi, a farmer who lives in Qana, says the bombing began around 1 a.m. Sunday and that he counted 120 explosions throughout the night, two of them hitting the house next to his where two families, the Shalhoubs and the Hashems, had taken refuge.

Many people in the village had taken to sleeping in their basements because of the aerial bombardment that has continued here almost day and night since the Israelis began their offensive.

"We heard the screams of one of the boys who was blown out of the building," says Abbas Kassab, who also lives in Qana. "He was alive but his legs were badly damaged and someone came out of the rubble with the boy's dead sister and laid her next to him. When we saw what had happened to the house we just all started digging with our hands or hoes, whatever we had, until the big machinery arrived."

Ghazi Adibbi says the two families, like many others left behind, didn't have the money to flee to safe havens in the north.

"They were just farmers and couldn't leave their fields," Adibbi says. "Besides, who has the money ... to get to Beirut?"

Qana is the legendary village in the Bible where Jesus Christ is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding party. It is five kilometers south of the city of Tyre, a way station in southern Lebanon for people fleeing to the north.

This is not the first time Qana has experienced wartime tragedy. In 1996, Israel struck a U.N. base sheltering Lebanese here, killing over 100 people. That attack sparked political fallout, as the current attack already has done. On Sunday, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said he canceled meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in the region for a second round of diplomacy.

The worst incident of civilian casualties in Lebanon since the current crisis erupted » View

Many of the bodies from the Qana attack had already been taken to the Tyre City Hospital by the time I got to Qana. Identification was removed from their clothing; they were numbered and catalogued and then wrapped in black plastic, their names written on the masking tape that binds the plastic before being placed in a refrigerated truck.

But five children are still in one of the ambulances at the scene of the attack. A Red Cross worker opens the doors to reveal the bodies of five boys aged from five to fifteen. He pulls the blankets back to show the bruised and dusty corpses.

He picks up the body of the smallest one and holds it up for a second to show us. The boy is dressed in green shorts and white sleeveless t-shirt. Aside from the white dust that covers his body, there are no signs of the blast trauma and falling concrete that likely killed him. His eyes are closed and the only evidence of his violent death seems to be the slight gritting of his teeth.

By early afternoon a contingent of
United Nations soldiers from China arrives in Qana with a large backhoe and together with a bulldozer from the Lebanese Army begins digging through the piles of concrete and twisted rebar.

It is a slow process. Two stories of the three-story building have collapsed, leaving a twisted mess that is not easily pulled apart. After two hours of digging there's still no sign of any more bodies.

This house was only one of many buildings bombed in Qana overnight, with no word on casualties from other locations. But in driving to the location I could see huge swaths of destruction which included everything from residences and a supermarket to a small mosque.

Under a pile of rubble at the mosque is a small sign of Qana's life before the bombing: a note handwritten on white lined paper. My translator reads portions of it aloud. It is a letter from a woman telling a man that she doesn't love him because he has not shown her respect. The letter and emotions conveyed in it, would, in another time, seem quite important, at least to the two people involved, but here in this dust-laced and possibly irreparably broken place, it is just another thing scattered on the streets.

Kevin Sites reports from the scene of the Qana attack » View

I ask Abbas Kassab why the Israelis would strike Qana so severely — what tactical or strategic value it might have. But he is adamant that there is none — that Hezbollah, or the resistance, as the Lebanese call it, does not operate in the village.

"There's no resistance here. Israel is lying. There are no resistance fighters here. Children are playing; there are no resistance at all," he says. "There was a mother with a seven-month-old child that was killed. Was she a resistance fighter?"

Israel argues otherwise. Israeli officials were quick to voice their regret for the loss of civilian life but placed the blame on Hezbollah, saying that Hezbollah had been using positions around Qana, including near the buildings targeted, to launch rockets at Israel. Hezbollah has launched daily rocket barrages toward Israel during the current crisis, killing 18 Israeli civilians, according to news reports. It was Hezbollah's cross border raid into Israel on July 12 that sparked the current crisis.

The contradictory claims mirror other conflict scenes I have visited in the south of Lebanon this week, with people on the street arguing strenuously that Hezbollah had no presence in the area, and Israel claiming otherwise. On Wednesday, at the scene of a bombed apartment building in Tyre, I met a man who told me that the area had nothing to do with Hezbollah, but press reports said the building was the office of Hezbollah's southern Lebanon commander, Sheik Nabil Kaouk.

I ask Abbas Kassab who he blames for the bombing and death in Qana, and the answer I receive is similar to what I have heard elsewhere on the streets of Lebanon:

"America," he says. "Only America."


"America gave the green light for Israel to do this. Israel can't shoot one bullet without America's permission. America is responsible. There are not resistance fighters here. Only kids playing. Even if there were, why would they kill civilians? Let them fight in Bint Jbail where the resistance is. Let Israel go to Bint Jbail and see what they can do."

Meanwhile, five hours of digging has turned up no new bodies and both the Lebanese Army and the U.N. contingent know they're running out of time. There's only an hour of daylight left to dig.

Now villagers in Qana tell them there are only five people that are unaccounted for, not the 25 or 30 they originally thought. The excavation teams give up the dig at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday. A beautiful soft dusk falls over the surrounding hills and valleys, a sharp contrast to the death and destruction they have been knee-deep in for more than 12 hours.

Despite what has happened here, Ghazi Adibbi says he and the others that are left will likely stay in the village. What has happened has hardened his heart about the conflict.

"We are resisting. We don't want a cease-fire anymore," he says. "We want the resistance to bomb Israel every day."

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