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Many Dangers Face Those Returning to South Lebanon


Tens of thousands of people are flooding back into southern Lebanon to see if their homes are still there after a month of Israeli air raids and fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants. Some people are returning not to check on their property, but to look for missing relatives. Southern Lebanon is still a very dangerous place to come home to.

Ali Hinnawi drove down from Beirut looking for his father and grandfather. What he found was a pile of rubble where the family home used to be, and no sign of his father.

He says that he came to Bint Jbail, where his father lives, and was going to try to take him out. But the rockets came down, and he does not know where he is now.

"Could he be under the destroyed roof of our house? Is he alive? Is he dead? We do not know where he is," he said.

Hinnawi last spoke to his father on the phone 23 days ago. He and some relatives had tried to walk out of town carrying a bedsheet as a white flag, but the Israeli shelling forced them to turn around. After that, the cellphone network in town was destroyed, and Hinnawi has heard nothing else from his father.

Before the cease-fire, this town was the site of intense fighting between Israeli ground troops and Hezbollah militants. Block after block of homes and businesses have been flattened by air raids and artillery. The walls of the buildings that are still standing are pockmarked with shrapnel holes, like Swiss cheese.

Many of the residents fled, but many are also believed to be buried under the rubble. Now that it is safer to return to Bint Jbail, families like the Hinnawi's are searching frantically for missing loved ones, hoping for the best.

At the hospital in nearby Tebnine, an elderly woman named Beheyya Ibrahim Saab says she has been there since her home in Bint Jbail was destroyed.

She begged a pair of visitors to give her a ride to Beirut, where her daughter is.

"My family thinks I am dead," she said. "They think I am buried under our destroyed house. They do not know I am alive."

She is frightened and alone, but she is still luckier than many. All over south Lebanon, officials and volunteers have started the grim task of recovering the bodies of the dead from the rubble of ruined buildings. It was often impossible to do that while the fighting was going on.

In the town of Bir Es Senassel, men in helmets and flak jackets are using a bulldozer to try to recover the body of an elderly man from the roof of a partly destroyed mosque.

While they are working, a car careens over a hill and screeches to a halt just short of a crowd of onlookers. A man and a woman jump out, calling frantically for help.

The woman is carrying a small child, a little boy no more than two or three. He lies limp and unconscious in her arms. She says their house was still standing when they returned home, but one of the walls just collapsed on her son. The family jumps into another car and tears off toward the hospital.

The accident shows that the dangers posed by the war did not end with the cease-fire.

Even if a building has survived the air raids intact, its structural integrity may have been compromised by the shockwaves from nearby explosions.

And there are many other hazards facing the tens of thousands of people who are returning to their homes, despite warnings from both the Lebanese and Israeli governments that it is still too dangerous.

Just outside the hospital in Tebnine, Siddiq Shaaiti, 12, points to a small cylinder lying on the ground and said, "This is part of a cluster bomb. If you touch it or put pressure on it, it will explode and you will get hit with the shrapnel."

He says his parents have told him to stay away from them.

The entire area around the hospital is littered with those little cylinders. Some of them look like they have exploded already, but others appear to be intact. Down the street, a large artillery shell lies in the middle of the road. Residents have piled rocks and milk crates around the unexploded munitions to mark them so nobody accidentally steps on them.

The United Nations says 10 percent of the ordnance that Israel fired into Lebanon may not have exploded and continues to pose a threat to residents as they return to their homes.

"Of course I am scared, but I am more scared for my little cousins who have just come back to town. They do not know about these things," added Siddiq Shaaiti.

On Tuesday afternoon, four Israeli tanks were clearly visible on a hilltop just outside Bint Jbail. A few-hundred meters down the road, Hezbollah fighters could be seen dragging a heavy weapon of some type across the road, just out of sight of the tanks. They waved their hands at an approaching car and demanded that no photographs be taken of them.

The presence of active Hezbollah militants and Israeli ground troops in such close proximity shows how fragile this cease-fire could be. And with refugees flooding back home, the specter of renewed fighting remains as serious a threat as unexploded ordnance or crumbling buildings.

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