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South Lebanon Villagers Use Break in Air Strikes to Flee


After talks between the American secretary of state and the Israeli prime minister, Israel has halted air strikes in south Lebanon for 48 hours. Israel says it is working with the United Nations to give civilians a chance to escape before the bombing raids resume. The announcement comes in the wake of international outrage over a deadly air strike in Qana that killed more than 50 people, more than half of them children. Some people are taking advantage of the temporary calm to try to rescue their families, but not everyone wants to go.

It is strangely quiet in this small village in the hills above Qana. Hussein Suleiman is making coffee for his father. It is the first time they have seen each other in nearly three weeks.

He has driven his battered old station wagon back to his home in Aaitit to try to convince his father to leave.

"My father, I left him here. He didn't want to come down," he says. "I'm staying in Tyre and I want to bring my father back down, and I'm going to try to convince him to come down to Tyre, where it's a bit safer, and take advantage of this temporary cease-fire.'"

Late Sunday night, Israel declared a 48-hour halt on air strikes in southern Lebanon to allow investigation into the killings in Qana. Israel also said it would work with the United Nations to give civilians 24 hours to flee the region, without fear of being blown off the roads.

But Hussein's father, Mustafa Suleiman, is reluctant to go.

"'It's difficult for me to leave my village, to leave my home and go down," he says. " I am a son of this country and I don't find it easy to leave my home. I'd rather stay here. It's easy for an employee to leave his job, but for me to leave my home? Not easy."

He says he was living in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, and he stayed throughout the fighting. He does not see why he should leave his home now. He points to a stack of canned food on the kitchen counter and says he can make do.

Many villagers in the south have been hiding in basements and churches since the fighting began, too afraid of air strikes to venture outside, much less brave the journey by road to safety in the north. Many people have no cars to leave with or no gasoline to fuel them. And, until now, vehicles on the roads have frequently been targeted.

Off in the distance, there is still the sound of shelling, a reminder that this is not a total cease-fire.

Hussein Suleiman is still trying to convince his father to go.

"I'm convinced by my father's resolve to stay here, but I'm not convinced that he's safe," he says.

Down the road, Qana is all but deserted, a day and a half after the war's single deadliest air strike killed more than 50 people, including many children.

Cows and donkeys wander aimlessly through the rubble of the ruined buildings. Most of the people have already fled. After daybreak, the few who remain began to venture out of their shelters, as news of the break in air strikes spreads. In the port city, Tyre, some people said they did not believe the moratorium was for real.

Back in Aaitit, Mustafa Suleiman's reluctance to leave his home finally gives way to loneliness. He decides he does not want to stay alone up in the hills. He will join his children in Tyre.

Outside, on the road leading into town, another car is headed up into the hills, carrying two women and an old man. They, too, are using temporary ceasefire to return home, but for a different reason.

"We are going back home," the woman driving says. "If we are going to die, we want to die in our homes."

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