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Convoy Escapes South Lebanon Town, Hundreds Remain Stranded

A small group of Americans and Australians have made a perilous journey to safety from a tiny village near the Lebanese border. After the Israeli military offensive in Lebanon began, they spent two weeks under siege in one of the most dangerous parts of the country, not daring to leave their homes and begging their embassies to save them. They have finally escaped, but they leave behind relatives and friends still stranded in the town near the center of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

When the fighting started, Sekna Tehfa, 56, was stranded in the village of Yaroun, just three or four kilometers from the Israeli border. She moved to Australia from Yaroun 30 years ago and was back in the town visiting relatives. It turned out to be a terrifying vacation.

"Fifteen days, I never sleep two hours. You believe? All night the bomb and the airplane hitting the houses," she recalled. "We say, maybe this one for us, maybe second one for us. We were very lucky. We pass. I do not know [about] tonight!"

Tehfa and others say they were living a nightmare in Yaroun, hiding in bathrooms and basements as the walls shook from airstrikes and barrage after barrage of artillery rounds. They say they saw badly wounded neighbors begging for help, but did not dare run outside to try to save them.

It has been all but impossible to get first-hand information about conditions in Lebanese border towns like Yaroun that have come under the heaviest attack. One Lebanese journalist trying to do that was killed in an Israeli airstrike hit the car she was riding in. The stories of the escapees from Yaroun reveal a nightmare scenario of civilians caught in the crossfire with little or no chance of escape.

Yaroun is not far from the town of Bint Jbeil, which has been the scene of intense fighting between Hezbollah militants and the Israeli Defense Force. But Tehfa says the bombs are not the only danger. Yaroun is all but cut off from the outside world.

"Plus, the people die without food. There is no water, no electricity, no gas. Nothing!" she added.

Tehfa literally walked to safety, wearing a pair of black flip-flop sandals and carrying nothing but her shiny black handbag. After nearly two weeks under siege, she and a group of about 70 townspeople - waving a large white flag - walked six kilometers to the nearest village, a place called Rmeich.

Another Australian, Fatima Salim, managed to find a car to take her to Rmeich, and then slept in a cramped apartment with 80 other people for three days.

"I lost my mother, my brother, my sister-in-law. I do not know where they are gone," she said. "Because I go out from one door, they go out from another door. And for one minute, I cannot see my parents. I do not know where they are."

Salim is traveling with her five-year-old son, who she says has been crying in his sleep, even though she has tried to protect him from the ugly reality of war.

"You know what I explained to my son? When he asked me what is going on, I said to him, 'This is fireworks. Because we have Christmas,'" she added.

From Rmeich, the women joined a vehicle convoy of more than 100 American and Australian citizens who were escaping to Tyre by road. Some had been living in southern Lebanon, and others, like Tehfa and Salim, were on vacation.

Their ordeal sheds light on the still-desperate situation in southern villages, where an unknown number of Lebanese people remain stranded and besieged.

New Jersey resident Ali Chahine said he had contacted the U.S. embassy hoping that they could be rescued. The embassy would not or could not send vehicles to pick them up, but negotiated with the Israelis for safe passage of a small convoy.

"They guaranteed our passage. We pass. We bring about 11 cars. We got here safe, no problem whatsoever," he said. "Now, there is a lot of people left there in the town of Rmeich, in our town, Yaroun, who was very badly hurt. Also, almost the whole town is destroyed. And there is still a lot of people there in Yaroun."

Several journalists covering the story noted angrily that the United States asked Israel for safe passage to get its own citizens out of Yaroun, but will not push Israel for an immediate ceasefire to protect the lives of other Lebanese civilians who happen to lack Western passports.

The people who escaped from Yaroun spent the night in a hotel lobby in Tyre and spoke about their nightmarish odyssey as they prepared to board a chartered cruise ship that would take them to Cyprus and safety.

A second convoy was sent to Yaroun and Rmeich to bring out the remaining Americans and Australians in time to get them on the boat. But hundreds of other people without the luxury of foreign passports remain stuck there, with Israel vowing to reoccupy a strip of southern Lebanon that would be almost certain to include both villages.

Israeli planes have dropped leaflets warning residents of southern Lebanon to flee, and even though many civilians remain stranded there, the Israeli military has said it now considers just about everything in southern Lebanon to be a military target.

Sekna Tehfa says civilians are being caught in the crossfire.

"Israel ... she said 50 percent we kill Hezbollah. Hezbollah's not there! Hezbollah's in the bush! Hezbollah's somewhere, but these are honest people," she explained.

The travelers were exhausted and frightened. They were also frustrated to be stranded in the same hotel, without transportation to get them across town to the port where the ship was waiting. They sat for hours in the blazing sun, having made it all the way from Yaroun but unable to travel the last few kilometers to safety.

Every Australian and American citizen who made it out of Yaroun left behind friends, relatives, and neighbors who have few options for escape. Fatima Salim said their minds remain fixed on those who have not yet made it out.

"You cannot believe. You cannot believe the people. You cannot believe the kids up there. God save the little kids. God save the old people," she said.