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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 July 2006, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
Fleeing homes in the line of fire
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Beirut

Woman with walking stick
Those who can have been fleeing to less dangerous parts of Lebanon
Israel's relentless bombing of southern Lebanon and parts of the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut has driven hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes.

A swathe of southern Beirut - where there is strong support for the militant Hezbollah organisation among the overwhelmingly Shia Muslim population - has been hit.

Some of Harat Hreik, where Hezbollah had its headquarters, has been reduced to smoking ruins, with buildings of 10 storeys or more flattened by air strikes.

Smoke is also rising from the latest attacks in Choueifat and east of the international airport, which has been closed by Israeli bombing since the crisis erupted a week ago, when Hezbollah guerrillas snatched two soldiers in the border area.

Israel says the bombardments are justified to combat Hezbollah, which it sees as a terrorist organisation.

But the human cost in Lebanon is almost 300 deaths to date and a civilian population experiencing widespread terror.

Rudimentary relief

Some of the human tide of Shia Muslims is arriving at Baabda Secondary School in the well-to-do Christian district of the same name, in the hills overlooking the southern suburbs.

Child lies on floor in Baabda School
Bare floors serve as beds for newcomers to the school shelter

Three extended families are just settling in after fleeing their homes hours earlier.

"We left home after Israel started bombing in civilian areas," says one of the fathers.

"At two o'clock this morning there was a huge explosion near our house, but here is no resistance near us," he adds. "So we packed a few things and came here."

The fragile Lebanese government is co-ordinating the evacuation with local charities, as well as the army and members of Hezbollah's social welfare services.

But for the new arrivals, emergency provisions are rudimentary - a few bags of food, some Lego blocks for small children, and mattresses, if they are lucky.

"We don't even know how long before we can go back to our homes," says a woman in a headscarf.

The classroom behind her is empty, the desks piled up in one corner and her infant granddaughter sleeping fitfully on a towel on a plastic mat.

"We stayed at home for as long as we could, we are used to bombardment," the woman says. "But the children became very scared, and they were crying and wanted to escape."

Responsibility

In all about 170 people are sheltering in the school, one of five in Baabda where some 500 people are being catered for. Across Beirut there are another 70 such schools, with some 240 more across the country.

Men sit on the veranda of a Betchai home
In some areas, only the men are staying put, sending away their wives and children

A neighbour here, introduced only as George, has taken it upon himself to help the destitute newcomers, and he comes several times a day to see if he can meet some of their needs.

"I was thinking whether I should get out of Lebanon or stay, but when I found that families with children were coming here I couldn't leave them because I felt responsible for them," the French-educated George said.

The displaced people are from parts of Harat Hreik, Choueifat and Bir al-Abid, and say they had little choice but to leave their homes.

But across southern Beirut, buildings and streets are empty - with those who can fleeing to less dangerous parts of Lebanon.

The United Nations says about 500,000 are displaced internally in the country, either by choice or under Israeli fire.

In Betchai district, just north of Choueifat only the men are staying put, having sent mothers, wives and children to stay with relatives on Mount Lebanon.

Home guard

The men - all Roman Catholics - sit on the veranda talking, drinking coffee and listening to news bulletins. They have stockpiled some food and are living on their savings, all hoping life will get back to normal soon.

"We're looking at it as a kind of holiday," says Nasri, a baker. "We guard the properties to make sure squatters don't come from other targeted districts."

"We can't rely on the government for anything," added taxi driver Gabi. "We generate our own electricity, guard our own homes, Betchai is like a mini-state on its own."

He shows off a shrapnel wound on his right knee, sustained when he went to check the damage from an Israeli air strike about a kilometre away, and a second missile struck just after he arrived.

"The man next door was killed, ya haram," he said. He had been a soldier in a base targeted in a separate strike that killed 10 Lebanese army soldiers on Tuesday.




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