Escape Route Is a Path of Destruction

Times Staff Writer

The missiles came without warning, fired down from a brilliant summer sky -- another round of terror for the dwindling, increasingly desperate civilians stuck in the Dante-esque landscape of south Lebanon.

The Shaita family was struck in their minivan as they fled their abandoned village. The Srour family, vacationing here from Germany, came under fire a little later. Then there was the family from Qoleili; they had abandoned their patriarch's body in a fruit orchard to drive north, only to come under attack themselves.

The three families were among those who suffered death and dismemberment as Israeli warplanes struck civilian vehicles attempting to navigate the bomb-rutted roads of southern Lebanon on Sunday. At least four people were killed and dozens wounded as they tried to escape the fighting in their cars and vans; at least five such attacks occurred near Tyre. A Lebanese journalist also died in the road strikes.

The Israeli military said Sunday it was possible that the civilian vehicles had been mistaken for cars carrying Hezbollah fighters and weapons.

In its push to rid southern Lebanon of militant Hezbollah forces, Israel has for days ordered all Lebanese civilians to evacuate homes within 20 miles of the Israeli border. But Sunday, the window for escape seemed to have come crashing shut.

"We'd like to know why Israel would do such a thing," moaned Afifi Shaita, 66, as doctors used gauze to wipe blood from her hands in an emergency room at Najem Hospital. Still more blood flecked her face, stark white against a black robe and head scarf.

"We were just driving," she said. "We didn't hear anything."

The Shaita family had come back to Lebanon in 2000 from Africa, where they'd been living and working for years. On Sunday, after days of ceaseless fighting, they packed themselves into a van and headed north. There were 17 of them in all. An Israeli warplane fired down on them, killing at least three people: the grandmother, father and a guard from their building. The rest of the family members were wounded.

"Hajje," one of the doctors said gently to the old woman, "there's a little baby girl."

"She's not ours," Shaita said.

"But, Hajje," -- again he used the title of respect for those who've made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

"Our youngest was 14," the woman replied.

Doctors continued their search for the baby's mother among the wounded. A nurse had found the infant in the hospital corridor. It was clear that she had survived a bomb attack, but it was impossible to sort out the families -- too many victims had flooded the emergency room at once.

The baby was in shock. The bomb had singed the wisps of hair from her head; bruised her face; gashed her arm. She didn't cry, though, just stared blankly at the yelling, jostling, bleeding crowd in the emergency room, sucked on her pink pacifier and held her tiny arm at a crooked angle, as if she had forgotten she could move it.

Looking down at the traumatized child in denim overalls, the nurse began to weep silently.

The baby didn't cry until she was laid on a stretcher and doctors began to apply burn cream to her face. Then the pain seemed to punch through -- she writhed in agony; her screams rang off the stainless steel and linoleum.

Just across the street from the hospital, at the edge of a lush banana grove that stretched off toward the Mediterranean, an SUV was burning. The flames were bright orange; the smoke thick and acrid. The car had been bombed as it neared the hospital; the driver had picked up wounded civilians who'd been stranded from yet another attack, survivors said.

"Why don't they go hit the fighters, not the civilians?" muttered a doctor bandaging Shaita's hand. He rushed away, turning his attention to another patient.

Israeli army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal blamed Hezbollah for using civilian areas for military attacks. "Tyre is one of the central rocket-launching areas, especially for [attacks against] the Haifa area. That's why the villages around Tyre are being targeted," Dallal said. Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, has come under frequent attack during the past ten 10 days, including rocket attacks Sunday that killed two people.

Through fliers and telephone messages, Israel has been warning Lebanese to leave the south. But many civilians remain, unable to afford the trip or too afraid to go. Price gouging has driven the cost of taxis up to $500 for the 80-mile ride to Beirut. The roads are pitted from explosives, and gasoline has become scarce.

At Najem Hospital, the scene inside the emergency room was confused; a jumble of people in pain, terrified and bumping into one another in a collective panic.

The crowded hallways smelled of blood. A little girl sat in the waiting room, howling for her mother. Nobody came. Another small girl wept on a gurney, a pool of bloody water spreading on the tiles below, soaking the cigarette butts and a shoe that littered the floor.

A doctor wheeled a boy into an elevator. The child's naked body was covered with a sheet, his face and hands looked like raw meat.

"I want water," he moaned. "I want water."

A woman in black robes and veils threw her arms around another young boy, and they wept. Her face was ghost white under streaks of blood. Photographers knelt before the two, snapping shots. Doctors screamed at them to get out of the way, another stretcher was coming through.

Ahmed Srour lay silent in his hospital cot. His head was swathed in white bandages, he stared off into space. He was 15 years old; his family had come from Germany on vacation.

"My father was hit," he said without affect, as if trying to understand his own words. "My father was injured. My father was still in the car."

His father was dead. His charred body had been left behind.

Many Lebanese here believe Israel, daunted by the invisibility of an enemy that melts away into the landscape of towns and villages, is hitting civilians on purpose.

"This is too criminal, too criminal," said Fatma Khalil, who looked lost in the waiting room.

Khalil and her family had fled their village of Qoleili, close to the Israeli border, under heavy air assault. Her 90-year-old father was killed in a bombing, she said. His body lay out in an orchard, the attacks too heavy to bury him. She and her family members finally fled Sunday morning amid continuing explosions."It was unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable this morning," Khalil said. "They were destroying the houses, making huge craters."

The family made its way over dirt roads, hunting for a main road, when a missile crashed next to their car, Khalil said. The vehicle was destroyed, but the passengers escaped.

"Israel says it is fighting Hezbollah, so let it fight the party," Khalil said.

"Why is it taking its anger out on the civilians?"

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Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Kiryat Shemona, Israel, contributed to this report.

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