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"You reach a place where you look at life like it's nothing."

Daily Dispatches from the Lebanese Capital

| Tue Aug. 1, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Walking into the scene of the massacre yesterday in Qana felt like entering a bottomless pit of despair. A black whole of sadness, regardless of the fact that the bodies of the women, 37 young children, the elderly, and what few men were there had been removed.

Mohammad Zatar, the 32-year-old Lebanese Red Cross volunteer I spoke with down in Tyre, after we'd been to Qana, described the scene and the feelings better than I can.

"I worked to rescue people after the first Qana massacre in 1996," he told me as we stood in front of the Red Cross headquarters. "But this one was so much worse. It was the ages. So many baby kids, unlike last time. Four months to 12 years. Only six adult bodies! Only 8 injured survivors. The rest -- all kids. There were no scratches on the bodies because they were all buried in the rubble. It was a bad scene."

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He told me he used to be gung-ho. That he'd always worked to be the first on the scene, take the big risks. But yesterday he shook his head often while we talked.

"This makes you feel so pessimistic," he continued, "You reach a place where you look at life like it's nothing. I've cried and cried and cried, all because of the babies. This is the worst."

Israeli jets roared overhead in the afternoon heat, the thumps of their distant bombs audible during the lulls of the crystal blue waves that crashed upon the nearby beach.

"We entered the place, and we could only use our fingertips," he said, holding up his hands to underscore his point. "Your fingers. You had to use all your senses. When I found a tip of a finger poking up through the rubble, I would start to shake like I was shocked by electricity, because I knew it was another child. I'm still shocked."

He told me of his three year-old girl. "I can't sleep, I keep checking her in her bed to make sure she's still alive. I go in and just hold her. I pick her up and hug her. Just to touch her and hold her and feel her breathing. And now while I must keep working, every 20 minutes I'm calling her. This has shattered me. I was never scared before, but now I am."

He saw me looking inside the headquarters at several of the other volunteers as they stood around. All of them seemed to move in slow motion, tired, lost.

"If you look in the eyes of all the rescue workers here, you see the sadness, the badness of war," he said, then held my eyes for a very long time. We just stared at each other.

I gave him a firm handshake and put my left hand on his shoulder. I wanted to give him a hug, but didn't want to embarrass him. Instead I told him, "Thank you for what you do. Please take care of yourself Mohammad."

I traveled to Qana and Tyre with my friend Urban, a Swedish-Iraqi journalist. He and I were unable to work today. We had plans to interview refugees in Beirut who've been arriving by the thousands from the south, and just agreed after lunch to wait until tomorrow. We're both shattered.

My photographer friend from Holland, Raoul, also went to Tyre yesterday. He sits downstairs at his computer. "I'm so tired, I feel like I can't continue here so I'll leave tomorrow," he told me. "How do you say it, in English, when there is no more room for any more feelings?"

Yesterday's trip was difficult, driving through so many empty villages atop the rolling, rocky hills of southern Lebanon. Like small ghost towns, inhabited by unattended dogs, cats, and the odd wandering herd of goats. One blasted building, shop, house after another. We followed small paths swept through the rubble of the streets, around the larger chunks of concrete, to make our way through and out, then on to the next village to repeat the process.

In Qana I spoke with two men, residents there who'd dug through the rubble of the shelter to look for their loved ones, only to find them dead. One of the men lost his parents. His mother was 64, his father 70. The second man, Masen, lost his 75-year-old uncle, and his aunt, who was 70.

"They bombed it twice," he said, "After the first bomb we heard the screams of the women and children. And moaning. Then a minute later they bombed it again. After that we heard no more screams. Only more bombs around the area."

Down at the Red Cross afterwards, I also interviewed Kassem Shaulan. He was in an ambulance hit by an air strike. He pointed out the hole from the rocket--an inverted flower of blooming metal, straight down the cross-section of the cross painted in red atop the white ambulance. He still couldn’t hear well, his vision was blurred, and he had several scars and stitches.

"We had an old man in the back on a stretcher whose leg was blown off," he told me, "And a young child who is now in a coma."

The ambulance near them was hit by an air strike as well--severely injuring everyone in it. Kassam told me that it took them three times to reach Qana after the shelter was bombed. "We got the call at 5 a.m. and had to turn back because three bombs barely missed our ambulance," he said, "Then, the second time, we were bombed and they missed again. So that is why we weren't able to reach there until 9 a.m. So most likely people died because the Israelis kept us away."

Driving home we had one of our few moments of levity of the day. A frazzled looking young British man, covered in dust and sweat and wearing shorts and ruffled shirt, drove up to our car on a motor scooter.

We were heading back towards Sidon from Tyre through plantations of banana trees. "Hi," he said. After we replied, "hello" he smiled and continued, "Oh great--you speak English. Can you tell me, which way is it to Tyre?"

We pointed behind us and drove on as he revved his little engine and continued south. Urban and I looked at each other, he smiled, and I said, "What in the hell was that?" We both laughed.

"Maybe he's a tourist who rented his scooter in Beirut," I suggested. Urban replied, "He may as well ask, 'Hey guys, can you tell me which way the war is?'"

Most of the drive we were quiet. Just driving, and watching the magnificent changing of colors just before sunset. The nearby hills to the east bathed in orange. The green palm fronts seemed to glow, thanking the sun for the light. The turquoise waters of the Mediterranean shimmered as the afternoon breeze began to pick up.

Just driving.

And trying to take deep breaths.


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