Hour after gruesome hour, the bodies came to light Sunday. Corpses with limbs snapped into unnatural poses. Women with arms frozen upward, as if they died grasping at the sky. Children with blue faces, their mouths packed with dirt.
The two families had moved into a basement of a half-built home because they hoped it would protect them from Israeli attack; but by sunrise, they were dead.
As many as 56 people were suffocated or crushed to death by an Israeli airstrike on the home in this southern Lebanese town. Many of them were children.
The few who survived sat in hospital cots with haunted eyes Sunday. They spoke of the long hours trapped beneath heavy heaps of rubble and recalled the dying groans of their loved ones that faded through the night to silence.
“When I woke up, I started screaming, and I kept screaming for two hours,” Heyam Hasham said. Her fingernails were broken and caked with earth. She couldn’t remember how they got that way. “I thought I’d die because everybody was dead around me.”
Blinking dazedly in her hospital bed, Hasham described the last night in the house: The families tucked into a dinner of potatoes and onions at 4 p.m., then gathered around their portable radio by candlelight and listened to a speech by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
“When we heard him,” Hasham said, “we were praying to stop the war.”
Israel expressed “deep sorrow” for Sunday’s attack but said Hezbollah rockets were being fired from the area. Government officials also pointed out that civilians had been warned to leave southern Lebanon.
“Liars! Liars!” cried Zeinab Ahmed Shalhoub from her hospital bed. “Every time there is a massacre they lie and make up an excuse.”
Across the hospital room, her sister, Hala Ahmed Shalhoub, nodded silently. The woman’s face was wan, her skin papery and eyes hollow. She gripped her bedsheet tight to her chin and told her story in the flat voice of a person shocked beyond emotion.
Bombs had rattled the valleys when she stretched out on a mattress with her two girls. She had to sleep, she decided, missiles or no missiles. As she drifted off, the 24-year-old mother rolled away from 18-month-old Rokaya and 3 1/2 -year-old Fatima. She felt their warm breath on her neck.
When the bomb crashed into the house, she thought it had hit a neighbor’s place. Then she realized her mouth was full of dust, and she couldn’t move under a heavy crush of rubble. Her daughters whimpered in her ear, but she couldn’t reach back to touch them.
Shalhoub doesn’t know how much time went by as she lay facedown in the dirt, listening as death overtook her only children.
“I heard my baby girl moaning in my ear,” she said, holding one listless hand alongside her ear to show where the child had lain.
“They were all covered with the dust, and they died,” Shalhoub said. “I couldn’t scream.”
It was her sister who finally saved her. The younger woman extricated herself from the broken house, hauled herself over to her sister and pulled her to safety.
By that time, Shalhoub had convinced herself that her 18-month-old baby was still alive. The child was still warm; she was sure of it.
“Get my baby,” she urged her sister.
She was hallucinating. The tiny corpse was stone cold.
Shalhoub said that she had been excited -- her older daughter would soon begin school. Her eyes filled with tears at the thought. But a few beats later, she insisted that her children were martyrs and said she was glad for their deaths.
“These children, they are going to heaven,” she said. “The people who did this massacre are going to hell.”
Aside from her children, Shalhoub lost both her parents, two brothers and a sister in the attack. Her husband, along with some of the other men in the family, was in a neighboring basement at the time of the attack, she said.
A pale, bespectacled nurse named Chadi Hassan stood listening from the door in his white coat.
“Every day is a disaster here,” he muttered as he turned back to the corridor. “America is sending the best of its bombs to Israel.”
The families had come to live here on the outskirts of Qana because they were afraid to stay in their one-story houses, survivors and neighbors said. Like many families, they did not want to leave, despite the warnings to flee; they thought the war would not last long.
They got by in the basement without electricity. The mattresses were packed so tightly they had to stack them to make room to heat food on their butane cooker.
The house, owned by two grown brothers, was a dream home that hadn’t been finished. Every time one of the brothers earned a little extra money, he would put it toward the house. The pair had been working on it for four years.
Despite the Israeli bombing campaign, the children had been whiling away the summer days playing on the rocky hillsides, neighbors and parents said. They rode bicycles down the slopes and played make-believe with their dolls. They scrambled around playing hide-and-seek and soccer.
“For sure, the drones must have recognized that there were children playing in the area,” said Mohsen Hashem, a 30-year-old relative.
“They couldn’t fight the resistance on the borderline, so they came here to fight civilians with their planes.”
When the bombing let up Sunday morning, Mohammed Ismael was one of the first to arrive. When the 38-year-old scrambled up the hill and saw what remained of the house, the silence filled him with dread. Everybody must have died, he thought.
“I shouted and screamed,” he said. “I started calling names, ‘Are you all right?’ And nobody answered.... I knew they were all dead.”
He saw a 7-year-old girl sprawled on the wreckage. He thought she was asleep -- then he noticed that her eyes were open, and still. He scooped her body up in his arms and carried her out. That was the beginning of a daylong hunt for bodies.
“Let America know,” Ismael said, “that from now on, if a kid is 1 year old, we’ll teach him how to fight America and fight Israel.”
Hours after the explosion, dust clung to Ismael’s mustache and coated his ears. His skinny arms were wrapped across his chest; he looked small and sad.
Rescuers said they believed many of the victims had died slowly through the long night of bombs, their faces pinned to the dirt. The bombs had kept ambulances away until daybreak. Even then, a bomb fell a soccer-field’s length from the first vehicle to arrive.
An empty silence clasped the hills Sunday. The orchards were full of hard green olives. Summer-swollen pomegranates bent the branches of trees. White flowers spangled the tobacco plants, and harvested leaves had been hung to dry on wires around the shattered house.
But everything was broken. It looked as if some enormous beast had taken a swipe out of the hillside, leaving a tumble-down structure leaking chunks of cement and twisted rebar. Rescue workers disappeared into the darkness of the rubble and emerged carrying small bodies. They lined the corpses up on a dirt path and covered them with a sheet.
“This is the most horrible thing I’ve seen,” said Red Cross volunteer Mohammed Zaatar. “It’s small babies.
“You scratch in the earth -- nothing, nothing, nothing,” Zaatar added. “You follow your senses. When you feel a body underground, something shakes you. It’s a life, it’s a man, it’s a woman.”
A page torn from a child’s coloring book lay tattered on the ground, scrawled over with strokes of sunny yellow and bright blue. A diaper was discarded. Ambulances were crammed with dead children.
The groan of passing jets echoed over the valley as men dug for bodies. Sometimes the rescuers paused and turned anxious faces to the sky. Most of the time, they paid no attention -- too busy or too traumatized to care.
A lieutenant colonel in the Lebanese army huddled over a list of names trying to piece together a tally of the dead. Everybody was doing that -- soldiers, neighbors, surviving family members and Red Cross volunteers. He shook his head and pulled slowly on his cigar.
“As a soldier, I know there are laws for war,” he said. “This is a mass execution.”
An old woman with a deeply furrowed face and a head scarf pinned beneath her chin stepped along a rocky path toward the gutted house. The grief came in pulses over her features, and as she neared the house the sorrow erupted.
“I want to see how they were killed,” she said. “I want to see for the memories.”
Times photographer Carolyn Cole contributed to this report.