Fleeing for Their Lives Into the Grim Unknown

Times Staff Writer

The orders from Israel spread at dawn Thursday by radio, leaflet and menacing cellphone text messages: All civilians south of the Litani River should clear out immediately or risk death.

Panicked by the evacuation order, families packed into cars and poured north on a tortuous route of one-lane dirt roads and bomb-pocked highways. Smoke boiled into the sky over the treetops as bombs rumbled in the hills. Jets sliced the sky overhead. As they sped past abandoned cars, they glimpsed corpses seated inside.

Many rode with their hearts in their mouths, faces hard with fear and fatigue. They tied strips of white cloth to antennas and waved white rags and undershirts out of windows as if they could flag away death. They convoyed with neighbors; one family had carefully packed a black and white cow into the bed of a pickup.

When they hit the main coastal highway and found themselves exposed to the sky and a flat blue stretch of sea, they gunned it as fast as their rusting cars could go. They were trying to outrace their fears, terrified that stopping for a moment would invite a strike from above.

Craters the size of minivans gaped in the road. Eerie quiet had settled over the hillside villages, where houses stood shuttered in the shade of orange and pomegranate trees. The sea was ominously empty.

Many didn't know where they were going or when they'd return. Having endured death and destruction for more than a week in the crossfire of Hezbollah and Israel, the last holdouts in the 20-mile strip between Israel and the river were being forced from their homes.

Asked where she was going, 65-year-old Zakiya Aour burst into tears. "Wherever we can," she said. Her 80-year-old husband had just undergone surgery and was still bleeding, she said. He sat on a bench and leaned dazedly against a walking stick, his eyes glassy.

The couple had arrived at a hotel lobby in Tyre with a small mountain of much-used luggage, a pet bird in a bright red cage and a grown daughter who was deafened in an Israeli missile attack in the invasion of 1982.

"I've heard people say that if the foreigners leave, get out because they're going to attack," Aour said. "Can't you do something for us?"

The displaced, who are washing up here with their elderly and babies in tow, spoke of villages besieged for days while missiles crashed down. Many seemed too dazed and exhausted to form articulate escape plans or think through the dangers they faced.

Civil structure appears to have broken down almost completely. Ambulances haven't been able to operate. The dead are rotting in the rubble of smashed homes. Food and clean drinking water are running out. Nearly 100 bodies have piled up in a poorly refrigerated container at a hospital in a Palestinian refugee camp close to Tyre; there's too much violence to pick up the dead or to hold funerals.

How the evacuation messages were transmitted en masse to cellphones was not clear. The order also was repeated on Voice of the South, an Israeli-run radio station that had gone silent after Israeli soldiers withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 -- only to be resurrected last week as combat flared between Israel and the Hezbollah militants who control Lebanon's southern borderlands.

Asked about the evacuation orders, an Israeli military spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, warned that "it's for their overall safety not to be there."

Townspeople and villagers who stayed behind braced themselves for a heavier onslaught of bombing and traded guesses about how many troops Israel might send to fight a ground war -- and how far north they would come.

Whatever befalls the south, there are plenty of civilians left to endure it. Many lack the cash or wherewithal to evacuate. They have nowhere to go -- and no roads or bridges to get them there if they did.

"We're going to sleep in the streets. Where can we go?" said Jihad Daoud, a 22-year-old who was stranded with his two cousins in a hospital in Tyre. The family had been driving through a fruit orchard, looking for a path to the main coastal highway north, when a missile struck so close to their car that the force lifted it into the air and slammed it to earth again.

At his side, his two cousins looked on miserably. Their faces bore deep purple bruises and raw cuts from the strike. Other family members had already been evacuated to Beirut by the Red Cross, snatched from the south by the questionable grace of serious injuries.

"I'm still in shock," Daoud said. "I can't explain what happened."

Muna Nasr, a 43-year-old deli worker from the southern village of Harees, had spent days working her way north. She and her family fled their home because food was running out and they made their way to Horsh, where they found shelter with a relative.

But Horsh also proved unbearable. Seven people lay dead in the house next door, struck by an Israeli missile. Ambulances couldn't get through to collect the corpses, and so the stench of death swelled in the long, sticky summer days. There had been no medicine, food or water for days.

"We just want transportation out of here," Nasr said.

"This morning the dogs were eating the neighbors," added Ali Deeb, Nasr's 50-year-old husband.

But the family had no money. So they sat on couches in a hotel lobby, waiting to see what would happen. They couldn't afford the Rest House, a fading, rambling resort slung along the Mediterranean coast.

The United Nations peacekeeping forces had taken over the back wing of the hotel; soldiers slept in flak jackets alongside an enormous plastic wedding cake. Unsure of where to go and drawn to the security of the international soldiers, hundreds of evacuees had crowded the lobby and lawns of the hotel in recent days.

"Can't you take anybody with you?" a man yelled at foreign reporters.

By the hotel's front desk, a volunteer from the local civil defense, Lebanon's catchall rescue service, stood watching the evacuees glumly.

"We can't work now -- even our car is a target," said Freddy Kayyal, a 22-year-old rescue worker. "And we don't have a headquarters anymore. We're just roaming around."

Tyre's civil defense headquarters, a central office for rescue workers, was bombed by Israeli jets days ago. Some bodies are lost in the rubble.

"Every time we try to go recover the dead, we hear Israeli jets overhead," Kayyal said. "Destruction, poverty and disgust greater than this, I can't imagine."

Tyre's main hospital has become a clearinghouse for the war's wounded, receiving hundreds of casualties from all over southern Lebanon. It's the only emergency room accessible to most of the south, and many people can't get here.

Patients aren't given much time to heal. They are patched up hastily, then loaded onto Red Cross ambulances that bump along the dirt and gypsum roads, swerve around bomb craters and hope they aren't struck by missiles before they get to Beirut. A trip of less than two hours in times of peace, the journey now takes upward of five hours.

"We have so many people coming in that we can't guarantee follow-up treatment," said nursing director Abdellah Shehab. "We need the free beds."

In a back waiting room at Tyre's main hospital, grim-faced men and women sat on plastic chairs, staring wordlessly at one another. The dull roar of explosions sounded in the distance. None of them, it turned out, was waiting for hospitalized loved ones. They just hoped a hospital might be spared in the attacks.

"I have nowhere else to go," said Yacoub Yacoub, a 43-year-old man with a full beard and bags under his eyes. He fled the southern village of Houla six days ago with his three children; on Thursday he sat wearily in the waiting room. A forgotten cigarette dangled from his fingers, slowly burning to ash.

"We sleep in the corridors," he said. "We just want a cease-fire so we can go home."

Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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