South Beirut after a month of bombing

Bomb devastation in southern suburbs of Beirut, 15 August 2006. (Marie Claire Feghali/IRIN)

BEIRUT - At first, heavy silence hang over Haret Hreik and other areas of south Beirut early on Tuesday morning as scenes of an apocalypse emerged from the thick smoke and smell of fresh gunpowder.

Then one could discern signs of life - women weeping as they inspected what were once their homes and other fragments of their lives, all destroyed by heavy bombing by the Israeli army during the 34-day conflict between Israel and the armed wing of the Lebanese political party Hezbollah.

“You will never be forgiven, Israel”, shouted an angry old woman as she broke into tears in front of a two-metre high pile of stones, once an eight-storey building. She tried to salvage some documents, a stuffed teddy bear, and three spoons, saying those were the only items she recognised to be hers.

The conflict started after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on 12 July. Israel retaliated with a month-long military offensive which targeted Hezbollah strongholds all over Lebanon.

As the neighbourhood of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Haret Hreik was particularly hard hit by Israeli air strikes. Once an overpopulated residential area with thousands of inhabitants, it looked more like ground zero of a disaster area on Tuesday, the day after a UN-brokered ceasefire brought an end to hostilities.

Piles of smoke rose from 10-storey buildings, emaciated grey cats moved among the rubble and the air was punctured by occasional explosions of what was believed to be unexploded ordinance. And when the putrid wind blew, it threw up more dust, flying papers, and photographs capturing some happy bygone occasions.

Death could be felt in every corner, as the smell of dead bodies emerged from the rubble. Some tractors were still trying to open routes for those passing by and for families rummaging through the debris of what was once a meaningful part of their lives.

Everything in Haret Hreik has the grey colours of war - the unrecognisable streets, the thirsty trees, the skeletons of severely damaged cars thrown blocks away by bombs.

Ali, 4, looked amazed at the sorry scenery. He poked his mother in tears, pointed to a shredded German flag between two buildings, left behind after the World Cup football tournament, and asked: “Do you think they hate the German team too?”

Among the debris of the Bahman Hospital in Haret Hreik, some of the displaced looked for masks, as the odour became intolerable. The smell of dead bodies and burned furniture filled the air.

The southern suburbs, the poorest parts areas of Beirut, filled hearts with a strange feeling of emptiness.

At one point, the sound of the wind became so strong that some people mistook it for the whistling of an Israeli warplane.

No journalists or photographers were allowed inside what was once known as the ‘Security Square’ in the Hezbollah stronghold, for fear of unexploded ordinance.

“Don’t worry”, said one of the Hezbollah guards to the gathered journalists, “you will have work for months to come, since clearing the rubble will take at least seven to eight weeks.”

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