The three hospitals in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre on Saturday held their second mass burial since the start of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Thirty coffins were lowered into a single grave, because the morgues cannot hold any more bodies.
Many of the dead buried on Saturday come from villages in the countryside surrounding Tyre. It is too dangerous now for families to return to their towns to bury their loved ones at home, as tradition dictates. The war has forced some 750,000 Lebanese people to flee their homes, and it has also displaced the dead, at least until the bombing is over.
The bodies of two elderly women arrived at the government hospital just hours before the burial, one still wrapped in a bloodstained blanket. Red Cross medics removed them from the ambulance, and wrapped them in sheets of thick black plastic.
They bound the bodies with tape, and wrote the names of the dead women on the tape in black marker. They carried the bodies to a large truck, and stacked them on top of other black-wrapped corpses inside.
Everyone wore surgical masks or respirators to protect against the overpowering stench of decaying flesh. Some of the bodies had been in the truck for more than a week.
The ones on the bottom of the pile were beginning to liquefy. One was covered in maggots.
Dr. Hassan Daher said the morgues have simply run out of room. "We can't preserve them, and there are no places in the refrigerator. That is why we should temporarily bury them. After that, their families will take them home," he said.
This is the second mass burial in Tyre since the bombing started, but Dr. Daher says it will probably not be the last.
Only a few of the families of the dead attended the temporary burial ceremony. Amina Baalbek went to bury her mother, who died in an airstrike three days earlier. Surrounded by her grieving and angry daughters, she said she still has other relatives trapped in their village, unable to get out.
She says, "If [President] Bush had an atom of pity in him, he would arrange for just a three-hour ceasefire, long enough to get those other people out."
The mass burial took place as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to the Middle East to continue talks on a solution to the crisis. Earlier negotiations in Rome broke down, without achieving agreement on a ceasefire. The United States has resisted international pressure to call for an immediate cease-fire, saying the long-term causes of violence in the region must be addressed. Secretary of State Rice has called for a sustainable ceasefire.
The Shi'ite cleric who presided over the burial, Sheikh Akil Zeineddine, has little faith in the U.S. mediation efforts. He noted that Washington expedited a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel after the war started. "They sent a bomb for the Israelis, and they sent some food for us? We don't need their food. Don't send that bomb to kill us, to feed us later, with that. We don't need it. And I send my message to the American people, I love the American people, I respect the American people. Always. Not the government. I'm sorry.... Thirty years, we are under invasion, from the Israelis with American weapons," he said.
The director of the Jebel Amal Hospital, Ahmed Mroue, said the international community must shoulder some of the responsibility for the vast humanitarian crisis in southern Lebanon, and for the ever-growing number of civilian casualties like those being buried in front of him. "I think that the government of America and Europe and... the democratic countries, they have a very big responsibility for what happened here in south Lebanon. Because we are not fighting. We are civilians. We only want to live, no more. We are not Hezbollah. We are not soldiers," he said.
Israel's offensive started when the militant group Hezbollah, which has its strongholds in southern Lebanon, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a July 12th raid in Israel.
At the gravesite, soldiers and doctors, working together, carried the bodies one-by-one from the truck. They laid them in rough-hewn wooden coffins and then nailed the white lids in place.
There were 30 coffins in all, five of them child-sized. Someone had placed a pink flower on top of the smallest coffin, for a baby just one day old.
The coffins were turned so the heads were facing Mecca, and the sheikh began the funeral blessing.
And then, one by one, soldiers carried the coffins over to a long trench, and laid them side-by-side, each with a name and a number handwritten on its white lid.
A bulldozer shoveled piles of earth over them, and they were buried together.