The Dead Cannot Wait

Times Staff Writer

They would bury their dead in mass graves, the doctors decided.

The government hospital had run out of room for human remains by Friday. More than 100 bomb-wrecked bodies were already crammed into poorly refrigerated container trucks, and more corpses were pouring in daily.

So they built cheap coffins of pine. Bulldozers carved 6-foot-deep trenches into a desolate lot littered with old telephone poles.


The stench of death seeped into the warm seaside air as the dead were brought out. Children pinched their noses; the men’s faces grew a little stonier. Men and boys jostled on the streets and hoisted themselves up hospital walls to better view the spectacle.

There was no opportunity for a more dignified burial: The clashes between Israel and Hezbollah have been too fierce for people to collect their loved ones or hold funerals.

“I’ve been a doctor for years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Nabil Harkus, a slight man who stood over a trio of unidentified corpses and spoke with slow, intense rage.

“They can’t fight Hezbollah because Hezbollah is not an army,” he said, referring to the Israeli warplanes overhead. “They kill the people because they think it’s the only way to stop Hezbollah.”

The Lebanese government has confirmed the deaths of about 350 people in the fighting, but rescue workers here warn that the tally is probably much higher. Relentless bombing has wrecked roads and rendered communication so spotty that no one knows how many people have died.

Soubiha Abdullah rocked back and forth as she waited for the bodies of her family to be pulled from a heap of remains. The doctors had given her rubber gloves and a surgical mask, which she wore over her head scarf.

She had come to identify and bury 24 members of her family, including her sister and her sister’s nine children. They died trying to escape their village; Israeli planes had attacked the road as they drove.

“I’m saying, ‘God give me the strength to see them,’ ” she said. “We just want to see them, even if they’re pieces of meat.”

It was a crude burial carried out under a baking sun, but even that was much better than most people felled in south Lebanon’s furious fighting could expect.

In the 75 villages surrounding Tyre, at least 180 people have been killed, according to the district’s Red Cross office. The International Committee of the Red Cross says those are only the ones it knows about and that there may be more.

In the village of Srifa, just 10 minutes outside Tyre, 60 to 80 corpses remain trapped in the rubble of a building, according to the Red Cross.

“There’s no way to get them out,” said Qasim Chaalan, a Red Cross volunteer. “The firemen are afraid to go to that area, and they’re the ones with the equipment.”

At least one Red Cross ambulance has been hit by an Israeli missile, Chaalan said, and there have been near-misses as well.

Rescue workers have decided that there’s no point in risking their necks to pick up a corpse.

“They’ll take the risk if there’s a wounded casualty,” he said, “but not if there’s just a body.”

In Tibnin, hard against the border with Israel, about 1,200 wounded have been rushed to a hospital that has no doctor, said Stephane Sisco, a physician with the French humanitarian group Doctors of the World. He sat in an army office in Tyre on Friday, pleading for help getting to the border.

His prospects didn’t look good.

“Too many people are dying because we can’t get to them and give medicine. It’s the same with food,” Chaalan said.

“Most times the volunteers are just sitting by themselves and just crying because they can’t do anything for these people.”

Nearby, the mass burial was about to begin.

It was an oddly workmanlike event, largely lacking in the outbursts of wailing and keening that often provide catharsis at funerals. There was a hardness in the air, perhaps brought forth by anger, exhaustion and a general sense of dread.

The coffins were plain and thin, hammered together overnight. They had been stacked tidily in the hospital gardens, their lids off to one side. Some were short, designed for children.

A man with a canister sprayed clouds of formaldehyde over the empty pine boxes; the haze of chemicals caught in the breeze and carried over the crowd. The mourners and townspeople coughed and rubbed tears from reddened eyes.

Then the hospital workers opened the back doors of the refrigerated truck full of bodies, and the ritual began: A man in a surgical mask stood in the back of the truck. He shouted out the name of each dead person as he lowered the remains. Whole bodies had been shrouded in blankets, wrapped in sheets of plastic and bound by duct tape. Other bodies, more badly broken, were handed down in plastic trash bags.

The man held aloft a baby so tiny it was unclear if it was a late-term fetus or a newborn. Its skin was mottled and purple.

“Look at this!” he shouted. A murmur passed through the crowd. “Oh no, no, no,” a man muttered. “God is great!” shouted others.

Family members waiting in the crowd came forward to unwrap their relatives from the plastic, line their coffins with bedsheets and say goodbye. But most of the victims had no relatives present; their coffin lids were nailed shut by strangers.

A woman named Wafah Abdullah broke from the crowd around the coffins and walked dizzily in a circle. “I just saw my nephew,” she said.

She wandered over to a flowering shrub, stood staring at it for a moment and then walked some more. She flapped her hands in front of her face as if she could push away what she’d seen.

Then she spoke: “He was beautiful.”

Bombs exploded in the distance; jet trails were visible against the blue sky. On the ground, a woman dressed in black sat by an empty coffin and sang a traditional mourning song.

“Where are the young men?” she sang, and then sang it again.

When the lids were hammered tight, men spray-painted victims’ names onto the coffins. Once the fighting subsides, families will be able to reclaim their loved ones from the mass grave.

They carried the coffins through the hospital gates and then lined them up along the muddy road. The hospital is in the middle of a Palestinian refugee camp. They would bury 72 on Friday and leave the rest for another day. Fresh graffiti on the wall read “72 martyrs.”

Onlookers muttering curses against Israel and America milled around the stairs and shop doors of the refugee camp, which were covered with old pictures of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian Authority president.

The sun was hot, the flies thick and the crowds persistent. Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics prayed over the dead.

The Lebanese army sent trucks to collect the coffins and soldiers to serve as pallbearers. Four soldiers hoisted each coffin; they stacked them in the backs of the trucks. The streets held the unnatural quiet that settles uncomfortably over a crowd awed by death.

By the time the green army trucks made their way to the vacant lot, shadows had grown long.

As the coffins lined the trenches, a man with white hair began to yell.

“This is what Bush wants! This is what this dog wants!” he cried. “It’s full of children!”

An elderly woman in black perched at the edge of the grave. “My darling Mariam, my only daughter,” she moaned. “Twenty-seven years old, my darling, 27 years old.”

It was a singsong of grief. People stood by silently. In the town, fresh smoke rose into the sky. Another bomb had fallen.