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Lebanese Dig Through Rubble for the Dead

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A fragile United Nations cease-fire has held for a second day in southern Lebanon. Israeli troops are beginning to withdraw, and the Lebanese army is getting ready to move in. An international force is also being put together. It will help the Lebanese create a buffer zone between Israel and Hezbollah fighters. For civilians on both sides, it's still a tense situation, but some Israelis who fled Hezbollah's rocket barrage are returning to their homes and Lebanese who took refuge from the fighting are returning as well.

NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to a village in southern Lebanon today. Before the cease-fire, it was the scene of a fierce battle between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Locals trickled back to the devastated village of Inata today to discover emergency crews beginning the grim work of recovering the dead.

(Soundbite of machinery)

WATSON: Lebanese Red Cross volunteers said they were looking for the bodies of 18 people, members of several families who had taken shelter in a single house, which was then demolished by Israeli airstrikes 20 days ago. Workers wearing surgical masks smashed bottles of perfume on the ground to help cover up the stench as they dug through the rubble. They had to use an electric saw to cut through debris to get to some of the mangled corpses.

This was the scene Zanab Whahadi(ph) came home to, weeks after she fled the fled the fighting here. Today, Whahadi says she learned her mother and father were buried beneath the rubble.

Ms. ZANAB WHAHADI (Resident, Lebanon): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: We thought my mother and father would be waiting for us at the door, she said before bursting into tears. Whahadi's 8-year-old daughter cried beside her.

(Soundbite of crying)

WATSON: Nearby, Nuhad Nashrallah(ph) sat mourning with their family members on a shrapnel blasted balcony. Her daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren were all killed in an Israeli airstrike. But this grandmother was not crying, perhaps because she has seen loved ones killed before.

Ms. NUHAD NASRALLAH (Resident, Lebanon): (Through translator) In 1982, there was a war between Israel and Lebanon and they bombed my house and killed my husband and son, and injured my daughter.

WATSON: A few doors down on the same bombed-out street, a different drama was unfolding.

Mr. ALI MUSTAFA IBRAHIM (Resident, Lebanon): I am sick, sick, sick.

WATSON: Seventy-five-year-old Ali Mustafa Ibrahim emerged for the first time today, after he and his daughter, Samira(ph), spent the last 20 days in his basement, hiding from the fighting.

Mr. IBRAHIM: I thought I'd go anyway. I stay here in my house. Under. Under the house.

Ms. SAMIRA IBRAHIM (Resident, Inata, Lebanon): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Samira Ibrahim says when the fighting erupted, her father could not flee because he uses a wheelchair. She stayed behind with him in the basement, sleeping on the floor and reading the Koran. The 45-year-old woman trembled occasionally as she described the battle between the Israeli military and Hezbollah guerrillas which unfolded in the valley below her house.

Ms. IBRAHIM: (Through Translator) There was distant (unintelligible) from here, fire from here, from around them and Israelis retaliate, shoot back. That was at the beginning of the war. It was extremely frightening because they were hitting everything.

WATSON: Hassan Mansour(ph) is a Lebanese American resident of Inata who managed to escape several weeks ago. During that time, he worried about his friend, another Lebanese American named Mohammed Hamoudi, who stayed behind. Mansour says they last spoke on the phone last month, before the electricity and telephones were knocked out.

Mr. HASSAN MANSOUR (Resident, Lebanon): When I talked to him over the phone, before his battery ran out, he said I'm waiting for - they might have kind of a cease-fire since they have lots of evacuees from Lebanon. So he was waiting for an opportunity to leave. And he had his passport and his carryon, some clothes and ready to leave. But he didn't have the chance.

WATSON: It wasn't until the cease-fire yesterday that Mansour could safely come back to visit Hamoudi's house and check on his friend.

(Soundbite of debris)

Mr. MANSOUR: As soon as we opened the door, I could smell the death, something here. And I'll show you where the bombs are, where he was hit. And I found him there.

WATSON: Hamoudi was dead, killed by an artillery shell that slammed into the side of his house. The 66-year-old academic lived alone. A U.S. citizen for more than 20 years, he moved to Inata to retire, read books and grow tomatoes and grapes in the garden of his house, up on a hill. Hamoudi was buried today in his garden in a simple grave marked by a stone between two olive trees.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Inata, Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.
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