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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Lebanon Grimaces Through Another Day of Airstrikes

August 14, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

NABATIYEH, Lebanon — Like the hillside hospital he oversees, Hassan Wazni has been driven to the edge of collapse. He slumped over a table in the cafeteria Sunday, waving a weary hand to swat off swarms of flies as bombs crashed outside.

Wazni figures he can keep on working for another two or three days, but, he said, that's about all he's got left.

"I should continue, because I'm the director here," said Wazni, the 43-year-old head of the government hospital in this predominantly Shiite city. "But I'm tired. I'm under pressure. I can't focus." His voice changes when he says that, falling.

Like many Lebanese in the bomb-ravaged south, Wazni is struggling to understand what has been accomplished during the weeks of bloodshed that killed hundreds of civilians and pushed nearly 1 million people from their homes.

"We all lost," Wazni said. "Neither side achieved its goal. The people of Lebanon are the biggest losers of all in this war."

Grasping for faith and mired in cynicism, Lebanese suffered through another day of Israeli attacks Sunday, their lives and livelihoods pinned on a cease-fire that few dare to believe can hold. As bombs shook the country, many were deeply skeptical that diplomacy or politics could stifle the fighting for long.

Even a pause in the barrage would help Lebanon shore up its supplies and infrastructure, but there was a note of fatalistic sadness in the way many people spoke of the prospective cease-fire.

Sunday's violence had a hint of choreography, as if both sides were trying to get in their licks before politics forced them to stop. The fighting pounded on, even as officials haggled over peace. Intense bouts of airstrikes also rocked the mainly Shiite suburbs of Beirut.

Nabatiyeh, long considered one of Hezbollah's most loyal cradles, is usually a town of about 70,000 people; these days, its mayor says, a tenth of them remain in their homes. At least 50 people have been killed in the town and the villages clustered on its outskirts.

The hospital here is about to run out of clean water, medicine and fuel for the generators. The staff sits around and trades grim memories of the last month: the 11-year-old boy who wandered into the hospital in shock; his parents and two siblings had been killed when an Israeli bomb struck their house.

A cardiologist named Hisham Hojeij totes his laptop onto his desk; his screen's wallpaper is a photo of his little boy, a grin spread across his face and arms stretched up for a hug. Then he starts scanning through the other photographs; the 1,500 he's taken since fighting broke out as part of a personal project of documentation.

A house with its roof caved in. The X-ray of a little boy with shrapnel lodged in his shoulder. A 75-year-old woman whose face is a formless mask of blood. The chunk of shrapnel, the size of a baseball, that nearly hit him when he was standing on the hospital balcony.

Some of the pictures are bloody; others are almost poignant, snapshots of a sort of forced summer camp the staff has endured since bombings pinned them inside the hospital. The doctors digging into a melon when they hadn't eaten for three days. The doctors playing cards to pass the long nights of bombings; taking turns cutting one another's hair.

"Civilian. Civilian," Hojeij says as he flips through the photographs. Child after child. Other dead bodies. "That's a police officer, he was hit when he was guarding a bank. This is the father of a doctor here; the roof fell on him. Civilian."

Explosions rolled heavily through the hills and valleys Sunday; Israel was pounding Nabatiyeh. The valleys brimmed with sunlight, but the force of thunderous bombs pushed through the summer air, creating the sensation of waves of pressure.

"All the time we wait and wait for peace, and it doesn't come," said Nabatiyeh's mayor, Mustapha Badreddine. "The people have changed. Now they understand they have to resist. They have to fight."

A slight man with white hair and blue eyes, Badreddine, a onetime Los Angeles resident, looked shellshocked Sunday. He used to pride himself on being the first peacetime mayor after decades of war. He has spent the last month watching his city fall apart under the bombardment.

One of the residential neighborhoods has been demolished, he says. The bombing Sunday was too intense to allow a visit to the area.

"Downtown is totally kaput," Badreddine said glumly.

"This is the last word. The last message. 'You want to exist, I want to exist too. You want to live, I want to live too,' " Badreddine said, turning a weary face in the direction of another blast. "But our message is, 'If you want to live, you have to change your ways.' "

A cellphone jangled. Men's voices rose and fell in Arabic. They gave the news to the mayor: The town's gas stations had just been targeted again.

Badreddine sighed. Another strike meant, he believes, to beat the population down until they turn against Hezbollah. He doesn't think it will work. The Shiite organization is too deeply braided into the families and villages, he says.

"You can't say, 'We have to kill all of the Shia,' " Badreddine said. "You can't kill everybody here."

And as long as Israel keeps bombing, many Lebanese say, Hezbollah must keep up its assault on Israel.

"If we want to launch rockets, everybody comes at us: 'Why do you want to launch rockets?' " said Ali Sayed, the hospital's chief of staff. "Well, what do you want us to do? You want us to sit by and watch them kill our people?"

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