July 24, 2006
ByHASSAN M. FATTAH
SIDIQEEN,Lebanon, July 23 — Muntaha Shaito’s eyes rolled back as the paramedics screamed at her to stay awake and implored her son Ali to keep her engaged, as she teetered near death from shrapnel wounds inflicted by an Israeli rocket.
"Pray to God!," one paramedic shouted at her as she writhed in Ali’s arms.
"Don’t go to sleep Mama, look at me!," Ali shouted, tears streaking his bloodied face. "Don’t die, please don’t die!"
It was the scene that members of the extended Shaito family said they had feared most, the real reason they had held out for days in their village of Tireh in southern Lebanon, terrified of the Israeli bombardment, but more terrified of what might happen if they risked leaving. On Sunday they gave up their stand, and all 18 members crammed into the family’s white Mazda minivan. They planned to head north toward the relative safety of Beirut.
Within minutes they became casualties ofIsrael’s 12-day-old bombardment of southern Lebanon, which the Israelis say they will continue indefinitely to destroy the military abilities of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group. By the Lebanese official count, Israel’s attacks have killed more than 380 Lebanese.
An Israeli rocket, which Lebanese officials said was likely fired from a helicopter, slammed into the center of the Shaitos’ van as it sped round a bend a few miles west of their village, and the van crashed into a hillside. Three occupants were killed: an uncle, Mohammad; the grandmother, Nazira; and a Syrian man who had guarded their home. The missile also critically wounded Mrs. Shaito and her sister. Eleven others suffered less severe wounds.
"They said leave, and that’s what we did," said Musbah Shaito, another uncle, as his niece, Heba, 16, cried hysterically behind him for her dead father, whose head was nearly blown off. This reporter watched as paramedics struggled to remove the dead from the van, but soon gave up, as an Israeli drone hovered overhead.
"This is what we got for listening to them," Mr. Shaito said, speaking of the Israelis.
The Shaitos came from a farming village about five miles from the Israeli border in a region known for tobacco, citrus and olive crops. They had waved a white flag from the van, signifiying to Israeli aircraft that they were non-threatening, Mr. Shaito told reporters later.
The Israeli military said in a statement that its aircraft operations over southern Lebanon on Sunday had targeted "approximately 20 vehicles" suspected of "serving the terror organization in the launching of missiles at Israel, and were recognized fleeing from or staying at missile-launching areas." The military did not comment on specific bombings, but cited the area south of Tyre, where the Shaitos were driving, as "an area used continuously by Hezbollah to fire missiles."
Bombing victims, witnesses and officials interviewed in the area on Sunday said Israeli warplanes hit people escaping by vehicle from their villages at least six times in a day of fierce bombardments. Lebanese Red Cross ambulance drivers complained about narrowly avoiding Israeli fire themselves as they cleared out the wounded, and a Lebanese freelance photographer, Layal Najib, 23, was killed when an Israeli missile struck near her car, about five miles from near the scene of the Shaito family bombing.
Israeli forces have sought to clear the area of all residents, in what seemed to be an attempt to separate the civilians from Hezbollah fighters hidden in the hills and villages. Just days earlier leaflets dropped by Israeli planes warned residents to leave the area and head north of the Litani River, effectively making the area a free-fire zone.
A drive through the southern villages on Sunday morning was like a tour through a string of ghost towns, with most residents having cleared out or holed up in their homes, as Israeli aircraft continued their bombardment. Roads were bombed, making passage difficult or impossible, and fields were scorched as the hulks of bombed cars littered the roads. All but a few stores were shut, with glass and rubble littering the streets.
The families in Tireh had preferred to stay home, but with dwindling supplies and Israel’s warning to evacuate, many of them decided it was time to go.
There were only about 52 people left in Tireh when most left for Beirut in a convoy this weekend, leaving the Shaitos largely to fend for themselves. Without much food or water, the family gave up its stand early Sunday.
Family members included Muntaha Shaito and her boys, Ali, 13, and Abbas, 12; her brother in-law Mohammad and his two daughters, Heba, 14, and Kawther, 17; and several other relatives.
They packed into their van, with all their money and valuables, and raced toward Tyre, the big southern seaport about 15 miles west.
It proved a day of carnage for the Zabad and Suroor families, too, said family members and medical staff members who treated them.
The Zabad family and their relatives, the Suroors, who were desperate enough to break into shuttered stores to steal food in the town of Mansoureh a few miles away, gave up their stand, too, on Sunday.
Minutes before Red Cross ambulances carted away the Shaito family, the Suroor family barreled down the road headed toward Tyre, with the Zabad family right behind.
When the Zabads spotted a wounded man on the road, they stopped and picked him up in their Nissan sport utility vehicle. They stopped again to pick up two men who had been attacked on a motorcycle and got even farther behind the Suroors.
Suddenly a missile hit the Suroors’ Mercedes sedan, killing Mohammad Suroor, the father, and Darwhish Mdaihli, a relative, and severely burning Mohammad’s son, Mahmoud, 8, and wounding his two brothers and sister.
As soon as the Zabads saw the car hit, they sped past, hoping to get to the Najm Hospital, less than a mile away. But a minute later a missile struck near them, setting the car on fire, and the family jumped out. .
The scene was chaotic at Najm hospital, on the outskirts of Tyre, which has been flooded with wounded from the bombing campaign. Doctors rushed to X-ray several of the victims, checking for shrapnel, as others where treated for burns and other injuries. For a short while, the hospital nurses rubbed cream on an 8-month-old baby for burns until they found her mother, Mrs. Suroor.
Despite the severe burns on his face, Mahmoud Suroor turned to his mother while in the emergency room and asked where his father was. She did not respond. Then he turned again to his mother.
"Don’t cry Mama, we’ll all be O.K.," he said.