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Two Lebanese Girls, Alone, Fear for Their Family


By the latest estimates, Israel's military campaign against Hezbollah militants in Lebanon has forced up to one million people to flee from their homes. An unknown number of civilians remain in besieged southern Lebanese villages because they either cannot or will not leave. From the southern coastal city of Tyre, VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has the story of two little girls separated from their family by the violence.

Medics from the Red Cross are unloading three patients from an ambulance after a treacherous journey from Aaitaroun, a village near the Israeli border that has been the center of intense fighting.

Scenes like this are rarer now than they were three weeks ago, when the Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah started. The wards of the Jebel Amel Hospital have gradually emptied out as the wounded have been evacuated to other, safer cities, as have most of the people of southern Lebanon. The influx of wounded civilians has slowed.

But up on the second floor are two young patients with nowhere else to go, and nobody to take them there.

Mariam Hamadi is six years old. She wears her hair in two braids, with a heart-shaped barrette in front, and a thin gauze sling wrapped around her right arm. She is shyly nibbling away at a packet of cookies.

She says, "My shoulder was injured."

Mariam is sitting in a hospital bed, playing with a new blonde imitation Barbie doll, a gift from one of the nurses. Her sister Fatma, 13, sits next to her, dressed in red. The two have no idea where the rest of their family is.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Red Cross evacuated Mariam, Fatma and their father from their village of Maroun er-Ras. It is just a few kilometers from the Israeli border and has been the scene of intense fighting.

On Monday, after Israel suspended most airstrikes for 48 hours, the girls' father headed back to the village to try to fetch their mother and seven brothers and sisters.

TRANSLATOR: "'My dad didn't tell me he was leaving because he didn't want me to be scared.' And I asked her, are you scared now? And she says no."

They have heard nothing from their father since then. The aerial bombing resumed on Wednesday, and ground fighting around Maroun er-Ras and other border villages never really subsided.

Aid workers who have visited the border region in recent days report near-total devastation, but say there are still a surprising number of civilians living there - people who are either unable or unwilling to leave their homes.

Fatma says she remembers the shelling, and the airplanes overhead, and the rumbling sound of Israeli tanks. She says her little sister Mariam was terrified.

"She was always looking for her mother, always sitting next to her mother, always chasing after her mother," she said. "The shelling was intense near the house."

Although not unusual, the story of Mariam and Fatma underscores how the conflict has affected hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the mayhem.

Fatma says the day before she and her sister left their village, Israeli troops burst in and took over their house.

"They came at like four in the morning, the Israelis. They broke the glass, they broke the front door of the house and they all came in," she added.

She speaks in a gentle voice, without showing much anger, and answers questions simply and directly.

"They were using our house as an observation, as a place to observe. If they see anyone they would shoot from our house," she recalled.

The soldiers, Fatma says, herded everyone into a small room.

She said the Israeli troops had one person with them who spoke Arabic, but not fluently.

Fatma says she, Mariam and their father were allowed to be evacuated from the village by the Red Cross because Mariam was wounded, but the rest of the family had to stay behind.

Now, Fatma and her six-year-old sister are alone in the hospital together. Hospital staff say they have no relatives with them. Fatma says she misses her parents a lot.

"She says my wish now is that I get my mother, my father and my sisters and we get reunited," she said.

Fatima and Mariam both say they are not scared. Fatma says her biggest concern at the moment is that her little sister will wander off somewhere and get lost.

But as Fatma, 13, nears the end of her story, tears start to well up in her eyes. It is as if the magnitude of what is happening to her has just really dawned on her. But she is trying not to cry, at least not in front of her little sister. She has to be the adult, for now.

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