Issa Chaalan, haunted by a promise to a little girl that he has been unable to keep, has had trouble sleeping.
The 25-year old Red Cross volunteer from the southern Lebanon port city of Tyre promised Rayan Finjan that he would bring home the bodies of her father, mother and 15-year-old brother, killed when an Israeli missile hit the minivan they were traveling in.
“She was still sitting next to her dead father in the van when I reached her. She said, ‘Uncle, see what the Israelis did, they killed my father and they’re going to kill me,’ ” he says, choking up. “We were both crying.”
Chaalan couldn’t retrieve the remains then because he had to evacuate the wounded.
“I didn’t even place a blanket over the bodies because the bombing was very close to us. I feel like I let them down.”
He has volunteered to deliver food aid and medicine to Tibnin, about 12 miles southeast of Tyre, along roads torn apart by Israeli bombs. The route will take him near Haris, where the minivan carrying 21 members of the Finjan family was hit, and he plans to get the three bodies on the way back.
He wipes his brow as he heaves another body bag full of bread into the back of his ambulance.
“These bags come in handy for all sorts of things,” Red Cross station chief Sami Yazbeck says as he watches young volunteers fill an ambulance with bread, sugar, powdered milk, canned food and medications donated by Beirut residents.
Bread has become scarce in southern Lebanon. Dwindling supplies have not been restocked, primarily because of the difficulty of traveling by road.
So it’s been left to the Red Cross and other groups to make desperate dashes to deliver food and other necessities.
But in southern Lebanon, roads and anything on them are prime targets. Six Red Cross personnel, including Chaalan’s older brother Qasim and another volunteer from Tyre, were wounded July 23 in the southern village of Qana when two ambulances were struck by Israeli missiles. The next day they were all back at work.
“There is no other group that can risk the roads, even though we were targeted,” Yazbeck says. “Our region has been shut off.”
This will be Issa Chaalan’s third attempt to retrieve the remains of Rayan Finjan’s relatives. He and two colleagues head off in their ambulance along almost impassable roads, negotiating craters yards wide. The buzz of Israeli jets and explosions near and far are a reminder of the danger.
Chaalan makes a quick stop at Hanawiya, and again farther south at Qana. Within minutes the three have dropped off a load of supplies.
“We have to take a different road,” Chaalan yells as he scrambles into the ambulance in Qana. “They’re shelling our route.”
They continue along roads carpeted with debris, next to fields of flowering tobacco plants and olive groves. Half a dozen cars with white flags speed past in the opposite direction.
After an hour, the ambulance rolls into Tibnin’s Red Cross post. The hillside near the two-story cinderblock structure is on fire, ignited by a missile strike.
“This is the first time they strike so close to us,” says Hussein Hammoud, a 17-year veteran with the Red Cross in Tibnin. “The people here need everything,” he says.
About 1,500 people have sought refuge in Tibnin’s main hospital next to the Red Cross center. The power has been out for weeks, they’ve run out of water and food is scarce.
“We haven’t received any help for a week. It’s a miracle that they got here,” Hammoud says, gesturing toward Chaalan and his colleagues, who were hovering near the ambulance. “If we’re blocked in for any longer, based on our supplies, we can’t go on for more than five days.”
Hammoud is interrupted by a barrage of artillery fire. Chaalan runs in, looking forlorn. Because of a broken part, he says, the ambulance won’t be going anywhere tonight.
It also means he can’t pick up the Finjans’ remains.
“I must get them out for that little girl. I have to help,” he says.