Thursday, July 27, 2006

No Exit - Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone

Yahoo! News
No Exit
American citizens are caught in the crossfire in southern Lebanon while trying to flee the fighting.
By Kevin Sites, Tue Jul 25, 8:56 PM ET

TYRE, Lebanon - For the Chahines of Dearborn, Mich., spending summers in south Lebanon is a family tradition. It also helps to keep them in touch with their Arabic heritage. But this summer that tradition almost cost them their lives.

The Chahines were in the village of Yaroun near the Israeli border when fighting began, sparked by a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed several others. In the two weeks since,
Israel has launched a fierce offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hezbollah has responded with missile assaults on towns in northern Israel.

Fear and frustration for Americans trapped in southern Lebanon » View

As casualties mount on both sides, Israeli troops are now engaged in a limited ground offensive in southern Lebanon, in a bid to neutralize deeply-entrenched Hezbollah forces. The suffering here in southern Lebanon continues to grow.

The Chahines spent a week moving from house to house in southern Lebanon, staying with relatives, trying to find a way out, the violence getting closer each day.

"I left my clothes in the trunk of the car," says Mr. Chahine, who only wanted to be identified by his last name. "That night it was hit by an Israeli missile where it was parked. Everything burned. That's why I've been wearing the same clothes for the last seven days."

Today, along with 100 others in an eleven-car convoy, the Chahines finally reached the city of Tyre, a waystation in a long journey they all hope will lead back to America. They are all American citizens, either naturalized or born in the U.S., summering in the same village and now desperately trying to escape the violence.

They say they were told by the U.S. Embassy to go to a hotel in Tyre called the Rest House, where a small
United Nations contingent is based.

When they reach the hotel, nineteen-year-old Zeinab Chahine, a pharmacy student, is overcome by the stress of the ordeal.

"Make them stop, make them stop, people are dying," she says, beginning to cry. "I'm American. I was born in America. Why do they do this to me, why?"

Zeinab Shahen, from Los Angeles, was also staying in Yaroun for the summer with her husband and four children. She arrived at the Rest House with the others, but says she had a close call when the Israelis fired a rocket near one of the vehicles they were riding in.

"Where the rocket hit it didn't damage the car much, luckily," says Zeinab. "They're using bombs, phosphorous or something. It burns. It melts. They're burning people inside their houses. They're burning cars, they're melting cars. No one can leave. We barely made it."

The Americans that made the trip are tired, hungry and shell-shocked, but even though they're safe for the moment, their first concern is those they had to leave behind.

Kevin Sites surveys the damage around Tyre. » View

"There are so many Americans still down there," says Zeinab Shaheen. "There weren't enough vehicles to get them out. And they don't have anything. There's no food, no water, they're desperate."

"I didn't see any Hezbollah fighters in our village," says Mr. Chahine, "so why are they bombing there?"

Mr. Chahine, who came to the U.S. 32 years ago, built a business and raised a family there. "I love America," he says. "My children were born there. But the U.S. needs to protect its citizens in this case and help get us home."

One of Mr. Chahine's other daughters, Fatme, and her eleven-month-old daughter, Batoul, also made the trip up from Yaroun.

"She's been so good," says Fatme, holding her daughter in her arms, "but when she hears the big explosions, she get scared and starts to cry. I have to be strong for her."

The hotel is allowing the group of Americans to stay in a large room under the pool house until the American Embassy can find a way to evacuate them. The U.S. says it is doing all it can.

"We are working with the Lebanese internal security forces, the Israeli Defense Forces, U.N. personnel and governments of other nations to assist Americans in departing southern Lebanon safely," says State Dept. spokesman Kurtis Cooper.

Cooper said the U.S. has helped evacuate about 500 Americans from the south so far, and remains in contact with about 100 more — though it's not clear if that includes the Chahines and others who just arrived in Tyre. With Israeli air strikes in southern Lebanon making road journeys dangerous, if not impossible, Cooper said he couldn't give specifics about the next step in their journey home.

"What I can say is if you're in southern Lebanon and you want to get out, then call the embassy, and we will tell you what you have to do, we will assist you in getting out," Cooper said.

But at the Rest House, food and water is short and many evacuees are still shaken by the perilous nature of their journey so far.

Stranded in Lebanon

Some of the older men lie on the plastic chaise lounges and make phone calls to relatives in America while children play nearby.

One husband and wife both sit with their faces in their hands, crying, while their children sit nearby, staring at them and wondering what to do.

One man named Hassan is trying to organize a trip to go back to Yaroun with some of the cars and try to pick up the people still left in the village, including his mother.

But just as he gets ready to leave, someone gets a text message on the telephone saying that the Israeli military is on the outskirts of the village and may enter Yaroun.

It's too dangerous now, people tell him — it's better to wait and see what happens.

And for the rest of the Americans here, safe but stranded between their homeland and home, for now, waiting is all they can do.

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