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Surviving War: A Mother’s Tale

War in Lebanon has changed the lives of thousands of families

On Thursday, 13 July 2006, Jocelyn Haddad woke at 3 a.m. in her home in Yaroun, a village of Shiites and Christians on the Lebanese side of the Israel-Lebanon border. It was tobacco season; the tobacco flowers had begun to yellow and Mrs. Haddad, along with other village women, descended on the fields before dawn to pick the ripe leaves from their stalks.

A few hours later, Mrs. Haddad returned home to rouse and feed her four children — three girls, 19-year-old Wardy, 16-year-old Jiselle and 11-year-old Marcelle, and a boy, 14-year-old Hana. For the past six years, she has run her family alone. Her husband, Kamil, once served in the Southern Lebanese Army, which was equipped and trained by Israel during its occupation of southern Lebanon. After Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from the south, Mr. Haddad fled to North America.

As she woke her children, Mrs. Haddad noticed that the electricity was out for the second straight day. But no one in Yaroun gave it much thought. Power grids throughout the country often failed.

There were rumors of new skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party that had controlled southern Lebanon since Israel’s withdrawal. But skirmishes, like power outages, were nothing new in southern Lebanon. Why should this be any different, Mrs. Haddad wondered.

Like most residents in Yaroun, she did not know how vast and destructive the skirmish was becoming. The previous day, on 12 July, Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid, killing three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two others. Israel launched a quick rescue mission that cost the lives of five Israeli soldiers and failed to recover the kidnapped.

Such actions were not uncommon in the years when Israel occupied the south. But since the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah never had mounted such a foray into Israel. The international community, including the Arab League, widely condemned Hezbollah, which claimed they took the soldiers to earn the release of Muslim men in Israeli jails. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attack an “act of war,” while the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, General Dan Halutz, said, “If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.”

Still, the scope of Israel’s response surprised everyone — even Hezbollah.

By the time Mrs. Haddad’s children had returned from school on Thursday afternoon, Israel had already imposed an air and sea blockade on Lebanon. Israeli jets were targeting all major outlets out of the country, including the Beirut International Airport and the Beirut-Damascus highway, as well as the main roads and bridges in southern Lebanon. The residents of the region found themselves trapped.

During the first few days of the fighting, most of Yaroun’s 5,000 residents stayed put. Eventually, they realized this was not just another minor scuffle between longtime enemies. By Monday, 17 July, Mrs. Haddad’s produce had begun to rot, and the bombs and shells were coming closer. That afternoon, an Israeli missile destroyed a neighbor’s home, and Mrs. Haddad took her children to her sister-in-law’s house in another part of the village. Others sought refuge in the Melkite parish church, St. George, which in calmer times served Yaroun’s 160 Melkite Greek Catholic families, including the Haddads. Father Elias Saliba opened the church to Shiites as well, transforming the church into an improvised bomb shelter.

On Tuesday, the Haddads decided to flee Yaroun. They were not alone.

“I saw all the cars leaving the town in a row, and that’s when I began to worry,”

Mrs. Haddad said. “We all left right away. People left lunch on their tables, they left their jewelry and their money. We left with only the clothes we were wearing. We thought the fighting would be over the next day.”

The Haddads found shelter in the nearby village of Rmeish, first staying at a local school and then in a relative’s house. Fourteen people shared a single room, living on bread and water. Mrs. Haddad was in charge of making the bread each morning. There were few breaks in the barrages of missiles, bombs and shells exploding only a few miles away, and no one risked leaving, even for supplies.

By then, Israeli troops had crossed into Lebanon and were engaging Hezbollah fighters at various points throughout the south. Fighting was particularly fierce around the southern town of Bint Jbeil, where on 27 July Hezbollah ambushed Israeli forces, killing eight. The following day, Israeli paratroopers killed 26 Hezbollah fighters.

Civilian casualties were high, too. Israeli air strikes and artillery fire destroyed residential areas in which Hezbollah operated.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah was firing as many as 200 rockets into Israel each day, hitting northern Israeli cities such as Haifa, Nazareth and Tiberias.

After more than two weeks of fighting, the water supplies at the Haddads’ refuge in Rmeish were gone.

“We panicked,” said Mrs. Haddad’s sister-in-law Majida Haddad. “We thought, without water we will die, disease would spread. We knew we had to leave.”

Majida had a car but no fuel. The driver of a van operated by a television station offered her a tank of gas and said he would lead them as far as Tyre, the largest city in the south. On 27 July, seven of the Haddads piled into the car and followed the van out of Rmeish, meeting up with a larger convoy of civilians and press corps.

“We had no idea where we were going,” Jocelyn Haddad said. “We headed north, and that was all we knew.”

It was an ominous drive along a road that Mrs. Haddad had known well but was now unrecognizable. Bridges were destroyed. Roads had deep gashes. Blackened cars dotted the roadside. Gas stations had been bombed. Homes had been turned into piles of rubble.

It took two hours to reach Tyre, normally a 30-minute drive. The convoy was going to push on to Beirut, sticking, when possible, to the main coastal road. But friends advised the Haddads that they might want to take back roads, so the Haddads and a few other families broke off from the convoy and took a longer, circuitous route.

Six hours later, the Haddads arrived in Beirut. Exhausted and relieved, they joined family who lived in the Christian areas of Beirut, which generally were spared by Israeli bombers. The following day, they learned that Israeli jets had attacked the main convoy.

The fighting would continue for a while, and many more Lebanese and Israelis would suffer. By the time the United Nations-brokered ceasefire went into effect on 14 August, more than 1,500 people had been killed, most of them Lebanese civilians. Another 900,000 Lebanese and 300,000 Israelis were displaced by the fighting. Physical damage to Lebanon has been estimated by the Lebanon Council for Development and Reconstruction at about $3.6 billion, while the Israeli government has estimated that the war cost Israel $1.6 billion, including what it spent on troops and arms.

Once they reached the relative safety of Christian Beirut, the worst was over for the Haddads. But, like most of the displaced, they had no idea what awaited them back home.

Mrs. Haddad said she was afraid to go back after the ceasefire. She waited a few days before making the trip with Father Elias, leaving her children in Beirut.

Half of her five-room house had been destroyed. The kitchen was gone. The windows were shattered, and the bathroom ceiling had collapsed. Only two rooms were intact. To Mrs. Haddad’s astonishment, her children’s stuffed animals were unscathed.

In the backyard, a shrine to the Virgin Mary was covered in ashes. Across the street, a neighbor’s house was completely destroyed: Only the stairs to the front door remained.

Mrs. Haddad said she considered leaving Yaroun, but her children persuaded her to return. The family now lives in two rooms of their patched-up home, sharing three beds.

Aid has poured in, mainly from Arab and Muslim governments.

Hezbollah is playing the most prominent role in the reconstruction effort thus far. It is mainly helping Muslim families. Christian families rely on the assistance of church groups, nongovernmental organizations and CNEWA. Mrs. Haddad’s children started school in October, thanks to grants provided by the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, little has changed in the political situation. No prisoners have been exchanged. Hezbollah has not been disarmed.

Indeed, many fear that another even bloodier conflict is inevitable.

Mrs. Haddad is despondent. Yaroun resembles a ghost town: Though its residents have returned, the streets are generally empty save for construction workers.

The fields Mrs. Haddad once farmed have been charred to the ground. Her church’s roof was destroyed. Neighboring villages, like Bint Jbeil and Khiam, fared even worse. Meanwhile, sectarian tensions have been stoked as residents wrestle with the question of who is to blame for the devastation.

“We were living fine,” Mrs. Haddad said of the relatively peaceful days before the war.

“Now I don’t know who will help us.”

Writer Amal Bouhabib filed this report from Beirut.

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