Survivors recount the carnage of Qana


QANA, Lebanon -- Hour after gruesome hour, the bodies came to light yesterday: Corpses with limbs snapped into unnatural poses. Women with arms frozen upward, as if they died grasping at the sky. Children with blue faces, their mouths packed with dirt.

The two families had moved into a basement of a half-built house because they hoped it would protect them from Israeli attack; but by sunrise, they were dead.

At least 56 people were suffocated or crushed to death by the Israeli airstrike on the house in this southern Lebanese town. Many of them were children.

The few who survived sat in hospital cots with haunted eyes yesterday. They spoke of the long hours trapped beneath heaps of rubble and recalled the dying groans of their loved ones that faded through the night to silence.

"When I woke up, I started screaming, and I kept screaming for two hours," said Heyam Hasham. Her fingernails were broken and caked with earth. She couldn't remember how they got that way. "I thought I'd die because everybody was dead around me," she said.

Blinking dazedly in her hospital bed, Hasham described the last night in the house: The families tucked into a dinner of potatoes and onions at 4 p.m. and then gathered around their portable radio by candlelight and listened to a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

"When we heard him," Hasham said, "we were praying to stop the war."

Israel expressed "deep sorrow" for yesterday's attack, but said rockets were being fired from the area. Government officials also pointed out that civilians had been warned to quit southern Lebanon.

"Liars! Liars!" howled Zeineb Ahmed Shalhoub in her hospital bed. "Every time there is a massacre they lie and make up an excuse."

Across the hospital room, her sister, Hala Ahmed Shalhoub, nodded silently. The woman's face was wan; skin papery; eyes hollow. She gripped her bedsheet tight to her chin and told her story in the flat voice of a person shocked beyond emotion.

Bombs had rattled the valleys when she stretched out on a mattress with her two little girls. She had to sleep, she decided, missiles or no missiles. As she drifted off, the 24-year-old mother rolled away from 18-month-old Zeinab and 3-year-old Rokaya. She felt their warm breath on her neck.

When the bomb crashed into the house, she thought it had hit a neighbor's place. Then she realized her mouth was full of dust, and she couldn't move under a heavy crush of rubble. Her daughters whimpered in her ear, but she couldn't reach back to touch them.

Shalhoub doesn't know how much time dragged past as she lay face-down in the dirt, listening as death overtook her children. "I heard my baby girl moaning in my ear," she said, holding one listless hand alongside her ear to show where the child had lain.

"They were all covered with the dust, and they died," Shalhoub said. "I couldn't scream."

It was her sister who finally saved her. The younger woman extricated herself from the broken house, hauled herself over to her sister and pulled her to safety. By that time, Shalhoub had convinced herself that her 18-month-old baby was still alive. The child was still warm; she was sure of it. "Get my baby," she urged her sister.

She was hallucinating. The tiny corpse was stone cold.

Shalhoub said that she had been excited - her eldest daughter would soon begin school. Her eyes filled with tears at the thought. But a few beats later, she insisted that her children were martyrs, and said that she was glad for their deaths.

"These children, they are going to heaven," she said. "The people who did this massacre are going to hell." Aside from her children, Shalhoub lost both her parents, two brothers and a sister in the attack. Her husband, along with some of the other men in the family, was sitting in a neighboring basement at the time of the attack, she said.

A pale, bespectacled nurse named Chadi Hassan stood listening from the door in his white coat.

"Every day is a disaster here," he muttered as he turned back to the corridor. "America is sending the best of its bombs to Israel."

The families had come to live here on the outskirts of Qana because they were afraid to stay in their one-story houses, survivors and neighbors said. Like many families, they did not want to leave, despite the warnings to flee; they thought the war would not last long.

When the bombing let up yesterday morning, Mohammed Ismael was one of the first to arrive. When the 38-year-old scrambled up the hill and saw what remained of the house, the silence filled him with dread. Everybody must have died, he thought.

"I shouted and screamed," he said. "I started calling names, 'Are you all right?' And nobody answered." Hours after the explosion, dust clung to Ismael's mustache and coated his ears. His skinny arms wrapped across his chest, he looked small and sad.

"I knew they were all dead," he said.

There was a sickly sense of repetition to yesterday's carnage: The name of this town is infamous throughout Lebanon, shorthand for a 1996 shelling in which Israel killed 91 people who had fled to a U.N. facility here. International outrage from that attack, which Israel said was aimed at Hezbollah guerrillas firing rockets nearby, is widely credited with forcing an end to Israel's "Operation Grapes of Wrath" campaign in southern Lebanon.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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