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Last Updated: Monday, 24 July 2006, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Lebanese open up homes for refugees
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Beirut

A car filled with civilians holding a white flag trying to flee southern Lebanon
Up to a million people have been displaced from southern Lebanon
Lebanese widow Nadya Azar was used to the quiet life.

Until two weeks ago, the 70-year-old woman spent her days sitting in her living room decorated with paintings of Swiss landscapes, or on her first-floor balcony overlooking a busy street.

Now her small four-room house in Beirut's Ashrafiyeh district is hosting four mothers and their nine children who have fled the south of the country.

Even as a young boy tears around the house with a plastic orange tennis racket in one hand and a sticky slice of watermelon in other, Mrs Azar says she would not have it any other way.

"They can stay as long as they like," says Mrs Azar.

"They are like children to me."

'One of a kind'

As the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon continues, up to a million people have been displaced from their homes in the south of the country, according to the UN.

Nadya Azar
They can stay as long as they like - they are like children to me
Nadya Azar

About 90,000 of these people are being accommodated in schools and other public buildings in Beirut.

But like the families staying at Mrs Azar's apartment, the majority of those who have fled are staying with friends and family in other areas of the country.

"She's one of a kind," says Fadiya Assad, a 34-year-old mother of two, wearing pale green Christian Dior pyjamas and a grey headscarf, as she picks up her pack of cigarettes.

"She does all she can to make us feel at home. She's like a mother to us."

Mrs Azar is Christian and the families staying in her house are Shia Muslim, but they say religion does not come into their relationship - they are all Lebanese.

Fleeing the south

The four mothers staying in the apartment are all sisters-in-law.

Their husbands used to run a bakery in this district of Beirut and became close friends with Mrs Azar and her husband Nasri, who died 11 years ago from cancer, before returning to their village of Khayzaran in the south.

The children were frozen with fear on the journey up
Amina Wahbe

But, when Israel began bombing close to the women's homes, their husbands told them to leave.

Mrs Assad says she knows of at least four people from nearby villages who have been killed by the Israeli bombardment.

Packed into two cars, the families fled their homes with the sound of screeching Israeli jets overhead and the soft thud of bombs being dropped in the distance.

"The children were frozen with fear on the journey up," says Amina Wahbe, 38, another of the mothers, holding up her clenched fist to emphasise the point.

Din of war

For now, the families are sleeping in one of the apartment's two bedrooms, on couches, and mattresses on the floor. They count themselves lucky.

A  man walks amidst rubble in southern Beirut
Israel has continued to bomb Beirut's southern suburbs

The men stayed behind in the village to continue working in their bakery, which provides bread to the south of Lebanon.

While the children appear happy, they are aware of the different environment.

Three-year-old Ibrahim started crying at one stage, but shielded his tears from those sitting in the room by grabbing his mother's headscarf.

"He misses his father," says Mrs Assad, patting her shirtless son on the back trying to comfort him.

The children are eating more as they are bored and cannot play outside, say their mothers.

And yet the children cannot escape the din of war. While the families are housed in a relatively safe district of Beirut, Israel continues to bomb the city's southern suburbs.

"Every time they hear a bomb they run to a corner and stand still," says Mrs Assad.

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