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Face to Face With the Victims of State-Sponsored Israeli Terror at Qana

“A Sort of Chorus of Screaming”

By Kate Seelye

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 1996, pgs. 6-7



Residents of Qana like to tell visitors that this is the site where Jesus turned water into wine. But miracles are a thing of the past in this small south Lebanese village where the people are struggling to come to terms with their present. On April 18, as Israel rained shells on the United Nations camp harboring refugees from Israeli bombardment of the area, Qana’s history was shattered along with the lives of the 800 civilians sheltered in the U.N. “safe haven.” As one survivor of the Qana massacre, who lost 14 family members on that day, said, “What is there to go home to now? More Israeli bombardment?”

Qana’s narrow main street wends its way past shops and homes set close to the road. It comes as a surprise when the road makes a sudden bend and opens up to a large square that is now the mass gravesite for the more than 100 people killed at Qana.

The gravesite lies at the base of the U.N. compound. Part of the chain-link fence surrounding the compound has been made into a shrine, hung with banners, wreaths and photos of the victims. Among the black banners, one reads in English, “The Massacre of Qana is a Real Witness of the Israeli Terrorism the People of South Lebanon.” Photos of Hadi and Abdulmohsen Bitar, ages 8 and 9, the two brothers who were killed in the shelling while visiting their grandmother on their Easter break from school in Dearborn, MI, keep an eye over the mass grave.

I visited Qana in early May with the first delegation of Americans to travel to Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s 17-day April assault. Outraged by the indiscriminate shelling of Lebanon, Vivian Stromberg, the executive director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights group, put together a team of eyewitnesses and journalists to view the devastation of Lebanon, deliver medicine and show American support for the people of the south. Another purpose of the visit was to express MADRE’s opposition to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and to U.S. support for the occupation.

The group was invited by the Lebanese Council of Women, a charitable organization. Among the 13 Americans who arrived in Lebanon on April 31 were poet and Berkeley professor June Jordan, former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Abdeen Jabara, journalist and host of the Pacifica radio show “Counterspin” Laura Flanders, New York Times photographer Michell Agins, and the writer, the trip’s media coordinator. The last time MADRE had been to the Middle East was in 1992 to deliver milk and medicine to the people of Iraq.

Our delegation arrived in Qana just three days after the mass burial of victims, while work still was being done to the grave site. A thin, bearded man, Kazem Mohammed Hamdi, 66, sat on a concrete block nearby. When informed we were Americans, he shouted, “Terrorism is America… bombs are coming from the U.S. and Israel is trying them out on us.”

Hamdi, we were told, was a survivor of the shelling and hadn’t eaten or left the site since the massacre. It showed in his face. “Forty children were burned in one spot,” he continued. “I saw cats and dogs eat the flesh of human beings.”

In fact, the horrors of the shelling become readily apparent upon entering the U.N. compound. It is not a large base, perhaps a half-mile in circumference. Around the perimeter are barracks and blue and white administrative buildings. In the center was once a conference building, a shelter, and another building where the majority of the 800 Lebanese were taking refuge when the Israelis opened fire and “overshot” into the camp.

What struck one walking through the camp was just how accurate Israel’s “inaccurate” shelling seemed. Most of the artillery landed in the camp’s center. The conference room had been leveled in the shelling and where it once stood, a deep, wide foundation was being dug, as though to eliminate all memories of the terror there.

Close by were the remains of a concrete shelter that also had taken a direct hit. The walls still were stained with blood and a sweet odor lingered. Down a few steps was the shell of the former kanisa. Its wood exterior had gone up in flames and all that remained was the charred shell of a building. It was filled with blackened debris, and many dozen scorched tin cans were scattered aboutprobably the tinned food with which the refugees had fled their homes. In the middle of the ruins lay the only touch of brightnessa bouquet of spring flowers full with red poppies, pink anemones and yellow lilies.

A 15-year-old Qana survivor who accompanied the group noted somewhat trenchantly that perhaps it wasn’t such a coincidence that only two U.N. soldiers were wounded during the shelling. Though his comment did point to Israel’s accuracy in targeting the refugees gathered in the camp center, it did not acknowledge the life-threatening situation in which the Fijian U.N. battalion also found itself. One colleague, who described a Fijian soldier she spoke to that day, said he was wearing a blood-stained, blue U.N. vest. It was his only one.

Leonard, a Fijian soldier in his 30s, said he had been in his barracks when the shelling started. After fumbling to get his boots on, he ran to help the wounded, assisting with rescue efforts throughout the 20-minute assault. “It was obvious the Israelis knew there were people in the camp,” Leonard said. “First they fired artillery into the camp from all sides, trapping people so no one could flee, then helicopters fired into the camp....They hit precisely where the Lebanese were.”

The effect the attack had on families, many of whom had gathered together when the 2 p.m. shelling began, was devastating. It made orphans of children and left husbands and wives without spouses and offspring. At the Jebel Ammal hospital in Sidon, where the majority of the wounded Qana victims were taken, we heard stories from the survivors. One elderly farmer, Sa’adallah Balhas, fled his home in Soudain when the Israelis announced it would be targeted. While taking refuge in the U.N. camp in what they thought would be a safe haven, his entire family suddenly came under Israeli artillery fire. As we talked to him in the hospital bed where he was recuperating from multiple shrapnel wounds, he and his son each wore large, gauze eye patches over one eye, lost from flying shrapnel.

“Fourteen people from my own family were killed,” the father told us quietly. “My children and my son’s children…My brother lost 14 members of his family… Another ten were badly wounded. They lost a leg or an eye…There were bodies everywhere just like pieces of meat.”

Shortly after talking with him, I read in a Time magazine report that Balhas had been wounded during the Israeli bombardment of south Lebanon in 1993. The same journalist who interviewed him in 1993 also interviewed him in 1996. The journalist noted in the article that Balhas asked her if she remembered his wife from the1993 interview and when the journalist answered in the affirmative, Balhas told her his wife was dead.

Lying next to Balhas in bed was a 23-year-old man who’d lost his arm. The main breadwinner in a large family, he feared he would be unable to provide financial support in the future. In the same hospital we met the woman whose two grandchildren from Dearborn had been killed in Qana. Also an amputee, she cried that it should have been her life that was taken instead.

Nawal Birjieh, whom we met at a wake, described how she saw her brother cut in half by flying shrapnel and tried frantically to put him together. Most difficult of all to witness, however, were the wounded children.

We met Fida’a Balhas, age 9, who looked up at us from her hospital bed with large, clear eyes. Her skin was singed and blackened. She described her experience in Qana softly, but matter-of-factly. “We were sitting in a room and they hit us. I saw my cousin was hit. I carried him to his mother. He was 4.”

Fida’a, we were told, lost her mother and five sisters during the shelling. In the bed next to hers was Lina Taqri, age 6, paralyzed on her left side from a shell wound to her head. The doctor told us she also suffered from aphasia, the inability to use words due to a brain injury. A bandage covered the head wound, and she lay on her side, looking out blankly, not speaking. Another three-year-old girl, an Iraqi child with a big head of curls, cried when we entered her hospital room. The doctor told us she was initially thought to have been orphaned by the shelling, but that a few days later her father had been located.

These hospital visits were very emotional for delegation members. Before us were ordinary peoplefarmers and merchants, mothers and childrenwho had sustained terrible injuries and witnessed the unimaginable while simply trying to escape war. Yet they were gracious and strong as we pried into their sorrows with our questions and cameras. Never was there resentment or hostility shown us, only a sense of appreciation that we might tell their stories to a larger community. Most remarkable was the clear distinction they made between the American people, whom they felt cared about them, and the American government, which they regarded as an accomplice to Israeli crimes. This was a distinction, I knew, Americans did not make among Arabs.

Later on our trip, we met a father who had lost his wife and eight children to a shell that hit his family’s bomb shelter in Nabatiyeh. He sat in mourning amidst a group of friends and neighbors under a grape arbor just 500 meters away from an Israeli outpost in the occupied zone. “All we have left is God and for you to tell America the truth,” he told us. “Please help us through your work in the area of civil and human rights.”

Human rights certainly were not on the minds of the Israeli artillerymen who pounded Qana. According to the United Nations report of the artillery attack, the Israelis used proximity fuses on the majority of shells directed at the camp. Proximity-fused rounds are designed to explode in the air approximately seven meters (21 feet) above the target, spreading shrapnel in a manner to create maximum casualties. This was the reason for the particularly grisly scene at Qana, and the resulting high numbers of amputations.

The U.N. report, whose release on May 6 greatly angered both the Israeli and American ambassadors to the U.N. because it suggested that the artillery attack was not a mistake, said that eight shells aimed at the center of the Fijian camp had proximity fuses. The majority of shells that fell outside the camp, near the site of earlier Hezbollah mortar firing, were impact-fused rounds which are better for destroying equipment. This made it “improbable,” according to the U.N. report prepared by a Dutch military officer, that the two types of rounds were fired in random order as the Israel Defense Forces later claimed.

In an article in the British newspaper The Independent, noted journalist Robert Fisk quoted a U.N. soldier who reported that, during the shelling, he heard from his observation post a mile away across the valley at Qana “a sort of chorus of screaming” from the victims. It is this chorus of screaming and its aftermath to which the American media and public have become so indifferent because Arabs are represented as nameless, faceless people, deserving of their punishment. But in fact, as I know from my trip to south Lebanon, each victim had a face and a name and an important role in other people’s lives. And on April 18, in the course of a mere 20 minutes, the Israeli army robbed with impunity 800 Lebanese of many of the family ties that are among the few joys in a life that has seen 18-years of Israeli occupation and oppression.






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