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Lebanese Families Facing Hardships Fleeing Embattled South

Israeli air strikes have intensified in southern Lebanon, tearing apart villages near the border. The Shiite militant group Hezbollah has continued to fire missiles at northern Israel, despite the massive bombardment of its Lebanese stronghold. The Israeli Defense Force has warned residents of southern Lebanon to flee for their lives, but with most of the roads and bridges in the region destroyed, many people are still stranded.

The little boy squirms in his grandmother's arms as his father describes the family's escape from their village in southern Lebanon on Saturday.

Mahmoud Balhas says it normally takes 20 minutes to get from his village to Sidon, but this trip took three or four hours.

With the main roads and bridges destroyed, hundreds of cars crammed with people are winding their way through narrow mountain roads leading out of southern Lebanon. Most of the cars have white bedsheets or t-shirts tied to their antennas or doors, signaling to the Israeli planes high above that these are civilian vehicles.

The road out is perilous. Balhas says he passed two burned-out vehicles on the way to Sidon, still holding the bodies of travelers who were not so lucky.

Tens of thousands of refugees have stopped here in Sidon, a mainly Sunni town on the coast that is considered safer than the surrounding countryside. Others are heading further north to Beirut, or to the Druze villages up in the Chouf mountains.

Escaping from the south has become expensive, or even impossible, for poor families without cars. Some residents of this schoolhouse shelter report paying up to $300 for rides out of their villages further south.

People who want to leave are also having trouble finding fuel for the journey. VOA saw at least five gas stations that had been bombed out between Beirut and Sidon. Further south, the gasoline shortage is reported to be severe. Balhas says he did not leave home earlier because he does not have a car, and because he thought the Israeli bombing would only last a few days. If it were not for his cousin, who does have a car, he might not have made it.

For this simple farming family, it is hard to believe that their lives have come to this. Balhas says his wife's father stubbornly refused to leave his home because he wanted to stay and look after his chicken farm. But he says the chicken coop was destroyed by a bomb, and his wife's father was injured and is now in the hospital in Tyre. He says when the bombing starts, he huddles his children together and makes loud noises, trying to cover up the noise of the explosions and turn it into a game.

Volunteer Ibrahim Al-Hariri, a member of the youth Scouts group running this shelter, says they are trying to help the children there feel as normal as possible. "We make special programs for small children, boys and girls. The boys were playing football, basketball, in order to let them forget, because they are little children and they came here in a very horrible situation," he says.

For the girls, he says, there is a room with crayons and paper for drawing. But the stark reality of their daily lives is showing up in the children's art. "There is the pictures, and you can see airplanes and missiles and some things," he says.

Neat rows of crayon and pencil drawings are taped to the school windows. One little girl drew a dead body engulfed in flames.

Another has drawn the same scene twice, labeled before and after. On the left side of the page is a brightly colored house, with a red flower and a smiling yellow sun in the sky. The scene on the right is in stark black and white, with a shower of bombs falling from an airplane. The house has been blown to pieces. The sunshine and flower are gone