TYRE, Lebanon — The orders from Israel spread at dawn Thursday by radio, leaflet and menacing cellphone text messages: All civilians south of the Litani River should clear out immediately or risk death.
Panicked by the evacuation order, families packed into cars and poured north on a tortuous route of one-lane dirt roads and bomb-pocked highways. Smoke boiled into the sky over the treetops as bombs rumbled in the hills. Jets sliced the sky overhead. As they sped past abandoned cars, they glimpsed corpses seated inside.
Many rode with their hearts in their mouths, faces hard with fear and fatigue. They tied strips of white cloth to antennas and waved white rags and undershirts out of windows as if they could flag away death. They convoyed with neighbors; one family had carefully packed a black and white cow into the bed of a pickup.
When they hit the main coastal highway and found themselves exposed to the sky and a flat blue stretch of sea, they gunned it as fast as their rusting cars could go. They were trying to outrace their fears, terrified that stopping for a moment would invite a strike from above.
Craters the size of minivans gaped in the road. Eerie quiet had settled over the hillside villages, where houses stood shuttered in the shade of orange and pomegranate trees. The sea was ominously empty.
Many didn't know where they were going or when they'd return. Having endured death and destruction for more than a week in the crossfire of Hezbollah and Israel, the last holdouts in the 20-mile strip between Israel and the river were being forced from their homes.
Asked where she was going, 65-year-old Zakiya Aour burst into tears. "Wherever we can," she said. Her 80-year-old husband had just undergone surgery and was still bleeding, she said. He sat on a bench and leaned dazedly against a walking stick, his eyes glassy.
The couple had arrived at a hotel lobby in Tyre with a small mountain of much-used luggage, a pet bird in a bright red cage and a grown daughter who was deafened in an Israeli missile attack in the invasion of 1982.
"I've heard people say that if the foreigners leave, get out because they're going to attack," Aour said. "Can't you do something for us?"
The displaced, who are washing up here with their elderly and babies in tow, spoke of villages besieged for days while missiles crashed down. Many seemed too dazed and exhausted to form articulate escape plans or think through the dangers they faced.
Civil structure appears to have broken down almost completely. Ambulances haven't been able to operate. The dead are rotting in the rubble of smashed homes. Food and clean drinking water are running out. Nearly 100 bodies have piled up in a poorly refrigerated container at a hospital in a Palestinian refugee camp close to Tyre; there's too much violence to pick up the dead or to hold funerals.
How the evacuation messages were transmitted en masse to cellphones was not clear. The order also was repeated on Voice of the South, an Israeli-run radio station that had gone silent after Israeli soldiers withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 -- only to be resurrected last week as combat flared between Israel and the Hezbollah militants who control Lebanon's southern borderlands.
Asked about the evacuation orders, an Israeli military spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, warned that "it's for their overall safety not to be there."
Townspeople and villagers who stayed behind braced themselves for a heavier onslaught of bombing and traded guesses about how many troops Israel might send to fight a ground war -- and how far north they would come.
Whatever befalls the south, there are plenty of civilians left to endure it. Many lack the cash or wherewithal to evacuate. They have nowhere to go -- and no roads or bridges to get them there if they did.
"We're going to sleep in the streets. Where can we go?" said Jihad Daoud, a 22-year-old who was stranded with his two cousins in a hospital in Tyre. The family had been driving through a fruit orchard, looking for a path to the main coastal highway north, when a missile struck so close to their car that the force lifted it into the air and slammed it to earth again.
At his side, his two cousins looked on miserably. Their faces bore deep purple bruises and raw cuts from the strike. Other family members had already been evacuated to Beirut by the Red Cross, snatched from the south by the questionable grace of serious injuries.
"I'm still in shock," Daoud said. "I can't explain what happened."
Muna Nasr, a 43-year-old deli worker from the southern village of Harees, had spent days working her way north. She and her family fled their home because food was running out and they made their way to Horsh, where they found shelter with a relative.