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Lebanon: "This Country Is Drowning"

Child on top of truck piled with possessions.

Families in the heavily bombed southern suburbs of Beirut leave the area.

It's not easy sleeping through the nights in Beirut these days and last night was especially ugly. Between 3 and 6 a.m. the Israelis unleashed a torrent of rockets and missiles down onto Beirut's southern suburbs -- Hezbollah's stronghold -- a few miles from my apartment. I'm no hardened war correspondent but I'm beginning to learn the difference between the impact of an Apache Hellfire missile and a bomb dropped from a fighter jet. Missiles hit with a quick sharp boom. Bombs shake windows and doorframes for several seconds and are accompanied by the unnerving sound of rolling thunder.

It's a strange feeling, lying in ones bed, listening to explosions and thinking that just five days ago, I was looking forward to a pleasant weekend at the beach. Now I'm wondering how I'm going to get through what I expect to be a week, or possibly two, from hell. Today, Hezbollah rained more rockets on the Israeli port town of Haifa, killing at least nine civilians. Israel is expected to respond ferociously and possibly indiscriminately -- sending my assumption that I'd be safe in my trendy Beirut neighborhood right out the window.

It's a strange feeling, lying in ones bed, listening to explosions and thinking that just five days ago, I was looking forward to a pleasant weekend at the beach.

Friends are calling to consult about ways to evacuate. An American director of photography who came two weeks ago to begin shooting some of Beirut's famously racy commercials tells me he's getting the hell out of here, even though he just put down a deposit on an apartment. The U.S. embassy is planning an evacuation of its citizens, possibly tomorrow, by helicopter, and is urging Americans to register online for the evacuation. A British girlfriend tells me her government is sending a naval carrier.

Otherwise, it's very difficult to get out of this country these days. The Israelis have imposed a sea and air blockade on Lebanon, pounding the runways of Beirut's shiny new multimillion-dollar Rafik Hariri International Airport. The main road out of the country was badly damaged after Israel bombed the highway to Damascus, as well as the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing. The lucky ones fled the city last Thursday and Friday in a long, congested line of cars that snaked out of Beirut into the Bekaa valley toward the Syrian border. Many were Arab tourists from the Gulf, their summer of sun and fun in this Middle Eastern playground shattered as the first Israeli rockets smashed bridges and roads in south Lebanon after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on Wednesday. Others were poor Lebanese families -- with as many as eight squeezed into battered old vehicles -- fleeing the southern suburbs after Israel dropped flyers warning residents of a major bombing campaign to come.

Damaged apartment building following Israeli air attacks.

An apartment building in a residential neighborhood in southern Beirut is badly damaged following Israeli air assaults.

Those of us who have decided to stay behind are living in a ghost town. Shops are closed, electricity is intermittent and landlines are working sporadically. The streets are empty of traffic, apart from a few taxi drivers still plying their trade. One driver picked me up yesterday to take me to Monoprix, a French supermarket chain that's still open. I stocked up on water, crackers, salami, nuts, batteries, and a couple of tin cans of French Cassoulet, all that was left in the tinned foods aisle. The driver who took me home cursed Hezbollah, Israel and the United States all in the same breath. He attacked Hezbollah for starting the crisis by capturing the soldiers to exchange for three Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons, Israel for widening the crisis with its massive bombing campaign to force the return of the soldiers and to crush Hezbollah, and President George Bush for not doing anything to stop Israel from launching what many are calling a disproportionate offensive. "This country is drowning," said the taxi driver. "May God preserve our souls."

Still, I consider myself lucky. At least I am living in the comfort of my home. Today, I visited a school -- just one of many -- where hundreds of poor refugees from the southern suburbs have sought refuge. All had fled last night's bombing campaign and were carrying just a few possessions -- a blanket or two and some food. Many sat in shock in corners on hard tiled floors, others sat at desks still trying to comprehend the magnitude of what's happened to their lives. A young mother of three clutched her two-year-old son and sobbed as she described last night's inferno. "My children screamed all night in terror," Fatima Assay told me. "And nobody's helping us, neither the Arabs nor the U.N. May God destroy Israel," she spat.

A 24-year-old nursing student blinked back tears as she tried to imagine her future. "It's as though life has stopped," said Zahra. "Nothing can ever be the same."

It's hard to imagine Beirut ever being the same. The southern area has been hit so hard for the last four days that it's beginning to resemble Beirut during the height of its 15-year civil war.

It's hard to imagine Beirut, or at least the southern suburbs ever being the same. The area has been hit so hard for the last four days that it's beginning to resemble Beirut during the height of its 15-year civil war. Buildings have been turned into burnt out shells, streets are pierced by craters from enormous bombs; smashed bridges lie in chunks of concrete and rebar on the roads below. Water pours from broken pipes. It looks like something out of a Mad Max movie.

I reported in the southern suburbs the first two days of the crisis, but as the bombing campaign has mounted I have been reluctant to spend much time there. Still this morning, a friend and I drove around hurriedly to check out the damage. We were prevented from going deep into the area when we saw civilians running toward us and smoke rising from a missile strike not too far behind them.

At a nearby hospital, we found a man who had been admitted that morning. He'd left his apartment at 3 a.m. to work at a bakery and had been standing near the Sfeir bridge when it was bombed. He took a slice of shrapnel in his leg and shoulder. "This is going to be a long war," he said through pained breaths. "And it's the people who are going to pay."

To date, more than 100 Lebanese civilians have been killed in the Israeli attacks, while at least 15 Israeli civilians have died following the launch of Hezbollah rockets on towns in northern Israel. The fear and anguish runs deep in both countries, but in Lebanon it's particularly painful knowing that the country's nascent economic development -- following its long civil war -- has been set back years, if not decades. It's also compounded by the horror shared by many Lebanese that they are reliving the worst days of that war, which ended in 1990.

Bridge destroyed after bomb attack.

A bridge on the way to Lebanon's international airport is destroyed.

I watched a Lebanese girlfriend -- an accomplished journalist for an international news channel -- break down sobbing over dinner last night from the pain and pressure of reporting on the destruction of her country. Another girlfriend tells me that she has been throwing up for the past two days. She left the United States in 2003 and invested her entire savings into her own marketing company. Her business and her dreams, she says, have all been dashed. Other friends tell me that they know Lebanese families who have decided in the last two days to move their businesses and families to Dubai, fearing there's no future for Lebanon.

Perhaps most painful for me is the sense of hopelessness I see in my Lebanese friends and acquaintances. They say Israel is punishing Lebanon and the Lebanese for Hezbollah, an organization that the government has no control or influence over. Hezbollah's decision to capture two Israeli soldiers to exchange for three Lebanese detainees may have been popular among a segment of Lebanon's majority Shiite population but it was condemned by many other Lebanese, while the government quickly distanced itself from the attack. Glued to a TV set at a local McDonalds, Gilbert, a Christian Lebanese accountant, put it bluntly: "Hezbollah is not Lebanese," he said, "it's an Iranian and Syrian party that's doing their bidding. We want to stop them, but how can we stop them?" Mar Elias, a shopkeeper in a Sunni part of town told me, "Hezbollah has a different agenda from the rest of us Lebanese. It's more of a revolutionary party. We don't want them anymore."

"Hezbollah has a different agenda from the rest of us Lebanese. It's more of a revolutionary party. We don't want them anymore."

In fact, Hezbollah has deep roots in Lebanon's historically poor Shiite community and is popular for setting up hospitals, schools and charities. It has also been a source of great pride for Lebanon's Shiites -- and the Lebanese in general -- after its guerillas were credited with driving Israel out of Lebanon after a 22-year occupation. But that was six years ago. Today, as Lebanon tries to assert its sovereignty after 30 years of Syrian occupation, Hezbollah has become a stumbling block. The heavily armed Iranian and Syrian-backed militia refuses to disarm and maintains the right to continue patrolling Lebanon's border with Israel, even though that's the role of the Lebanese army.

Before the start of this crisis, the country's weak and divided government had been preparing for talks on the disarmament of Hezbollah but was facing opposition within the cabinet and parliament, many of whose members side with Hezbollah and Syria. There's also been fear that any attempt to take on Hezbollah could lead to internal strife in this already fractious country. The army -- which would be tasked with the job of disarming the militant group -- is half Shiite and many of its soldiers sympathize with Hezbollah.

At the moment everyone's best hope is that the international community will finally put pressure on both Israel and Hezbollah to reach a ceasefire and later a deal to exchange their captives.

In the meantime, I'm hunkering down and hoping a small miracle will rescue this very special country.

Kate Seelye is a Middle East correspondent for Public Radio International's "The World" and a regular contributor to this Web site. Read more of Seelye's dispatches from the region and watch her May 2005 FRONTLINE/World report from Lebanon and Syria following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. You can also listen to Seelye's latest radio reports from Beirut on The World's Web site and learn more about the history of Hezbollah.


Jeff Fischer - Seattle, WA
Excellent article with great insight from some of the people of Lebanon. Very helpful in understanding the complexity of Hezbollah's support system in Lebanon. Thank You.

random american Provost - santa cruz, CA
My thoughts are with you Kate. Thank you.

ronald zissler - pecatonica, il.
Some good comments. I think it is about time to pull our economic support of Israel. It is like we are backing a person crazy on drugs and we just keep on enabling them to get away with murder. Are we blind? I pray that we in the u. s. wake-up soon.

I agree with Marwa, as an American I am appalled that we are still backing Israel....On American t.v. we do not see the Lebanese casualties because we get broadcasts [mainly from Israel]! I realize the Lebanese communications have been knocked down, but let's see both sides of war.

We are the ones that are going to pay the piper for our sins in supporting Israel. We with double standards that insist on any one we do not like to obey UN resolutions when Israel continues to build settlements, steal land, kill innocent civilians...with no regards to process of law or international law. We are going to pay the price for being the benefactors of such a corrupt society. It is a shame that the Jews of the Ghettos of Poland and the concentration camps of the Germans can forget these atrocities so fast... The world will not forget this outrageous behavior...

E Meyrial - Providence, RI
The Lebanese government is being blamed for not disarming Hezbullah, an militant organization and political party, supported by both Syria and Iran.
Britain, with all its resources, has never been able to disarm the IRA in Northern Ireland. How can we expect Lebanon's central government, weak and slowly recovering from the devastation of civil war and of 18 years of Israeli occupation, to accomplish this difficult feat?I agree with recent statements by General William Odum, former head of the NSA under Reagan's administration, in which he stated that Israel was trying to spread chaos in the region with the hopes of getting the US involved in attacking Iran. It would be in the interests of US national security to rein in Israel and institute an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon.

Ezra - Boston, MA
I'd like to see a report by Frontline of the over 100,000 displaced Israelis living in tents and other places because their homes aren't safe. They are suffering. Tourism is dead in the north of Israel.

John Irvine - Baltimore, MD
Hang in there Kate. We know you made the decision to stay and ride this out, and assume you can judge the situation best. You and your city are in our prayers.-John

Ayul Zamir - Rockville, MD
A strangely misguided, eerie, cheerleading like sound is rumbling on in the US--an excitement for one more war to punish someone or some country is palpable among some, now. A few years down the road we would wonder once again: why are we so hated! By approving the sending off of the next batch of bunker busting bombs, in a hurry, now--we have practically joined the war. Sorry, but perceptions are realities...Germans and British have sent in their foreign ministry persons, but Madam Rice and Mr. Bush are still cheering IDF [Israeli Defense Force] on. In Israel this is promoting a strange arrogance...and encouraging a wishful goal that cannot be achieved--of destroying the enemy which has no face. And they are making more enemies for themselves. The very weak Prime Minister [Olmert] and his Government in Israel are letting the IDF run away with their myopic visions of a conventional victory over an unconventional enemy. If I did not get the BBC, I would get such a distorted view--the American media is frightening at times. Can anyone explain why a prisoner exchange was a bad idea--was the existence of Israel really threatened by Hamas and Hezbollah, and their stone age rockets? How many people have actually been killed by these rockets fired from Lebanon--before the war started?That Hamas' and Hezbollah's actions were an example of utter stupidity is not a question; but that a whole lot of harm has now been done to both the Israeli and the US long term security is not a question either. This arrogance and non-caring attitude will not go down well in hisotry. It won't be a surprise if we witness 1982 all over again. Powers in power are beating the drums of a broader war on terrorism, and the powerful in this declining world power are frighteningly simple minded. They actually believe that you can beat civilizations into submission.

(anonymous) - Los Angeles, CA
I truly wish that the United States would wash their hands clean of the Middle East, lose the dependency on oil and leave them all to fight their own wars and solve their own problems so we can take care of our own country that's in ruin. Thank you George W. Bush for making us the most hated nation on the planet. Your greed and conceit have doomed all the innocent Americans for generations to come.

Seattle, WA
Thank you for the excellent article. Two months ago I traveled through Syria and Lebanon and met the most amazing people. We talked much about their recent history, their resiliency and hope for the future. Syrians were looking toward the small steps that Bashar Al Assad was making toward more freedom. (Can a country change its values immediately? No!) And yet they were dismayed at the hatred toward them from the west. The Lebanese were looking forward, wanting peace and progress in their land. With so much hope expressed, it's a shame that the inexcusable violence of a small group of people is responded to with deplorable violence and murder. Imagine if the US was attacked by a powerful country because of the hideous acts of a few. Hundreds would be killed. Would the US fight back? Of course. That has been proven. Why do we blame Israel for reacting as they do? They're following the example of their rich uncle, named Sam. The uncle and his nephew need some serious anger management counseling.

Holly Hendrix - Riverton, WY
If Israel (or the US, for that matter) had any real interest in peace in the Middle East, they would call a ceasefire immediately. Prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel has been a common occurrence in the last six years. Why has Israel chosen to react now with such disproportionate force? And why has the response from the White House been a shrug and an Israel-will-be-Israel attitude? It's clear that the security interests for both countries would be better served by the diplomatic process than a military approach. History has shown that violence only begets violence, and terror creates terrorists. Israel's "war" on Lebanon looks suspiciously like America's war on Iraq: conducted under false pretenses for some ulterior political purpose. What Israel hopes to gain from this is not yet clear (the claim that Israel expects to disarm and disband Hezbollah, who they've been engaged with at various levels for the last twenty years, is obviously unrealistic). What is clear is that the civilians of Lebanon and Israel will be the ones to pay for the political maneuvering, as has ever been the case with war.

Houston, Texas
It is easy to make an enemy and it is hard to make a friend. Be nice to the people on your way up because you are going to see them on your way down. Bravo Israel, you are up now but you are not nice to a lot of people.
Everyday I see the poor burned dead Lebanese children on TV or the internet...When are the Israelis going to wake up and figure out that this will not bring peace? My way or the high way will not work. Return all the land seized by your Army in the 1967 war and you will make peace with your neighbors. Treat people the way you like to be treated...Peace is easy but your goverment and your right wing and religious crazy people are not looking too far to the future. I will bet that if you take an average Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian, they will make peace and solve the problem over a Falafel Sandwich in about two-three hours.I ask all the Israelis to pressure their goverment to stop the crazy shelling of Lebanon and turn to a peaceful solution, not only for Lebanon but for all the problems at once as Mr. Rabin tried to do, Also, I ask all the American Jewish community to pressure the USA and the Israeli govement to stop the war at once.For every person who dies in Lebanon or Israel, you have created 10 more enemies. Bloodshed only brings blood. You will be making peace for your grand kids and so on, forget about your feelings for a second and think about your kids, come on people it is easy.I am the only one who thinks this way?

Daniel Kinyon - Rapid City, South Dakota
Israel has been dealing with vicious attacks on its civilian populations for years. Let's not bash them. We get hit with terrosim in this country (9/11) and we invade 2 countries over it!!! Why shouldn't Israel go in and root out the vicious terrorists also?

Louis Knight - West Jordan, Utah
[...] "Israel is expected to respond ferociously and possibly indiscriminately--" [...]When has the Israeli Defence Forces ever done anything indiscriminately?
The formerly Chistian country of Lebanon is not suffering because Israel is defending itself but because of the ongoing Jihad against anything not Islamic--including a secular Lebanon!

Richmond, VA
An empire has enemies. To preserve her interests, the empire has to eliminate her enemies.

Chad Raschke - Stillwater, MN
It saddens me to see this happening once again. I feel that the only way this, and the entire Middle Eastern turmoil, will end is when each side gets a new mindset. Instead of the "eye for an eye" belief that each side has right now, they will need to adopt, "Do unto others as you would have done to you." Or better yet, "turn the other cheek" philosophy. Until then, unfortunately, this attack/counterattack battle will rage on.

New Orleans, LA
This all started in 1948 when the Arab governments pledged themselves to destroying Israel. They should take responsibility and end the violence rather than killing their own children with bombs. Gandhi and Martin Luther King got their way through peaceful means. True, they both died for their causes, but they achieved their goals - Indian Independence and the Civil Rights Act respectively. Their children now benefit and do not think to have themselves blown to bits. Arabs should look at their own actions more closely.

PJ Garcia - Los Angeles, CA
I think because our president was chosen by God like he said, and I feel like he does that we should nuke them all. Stop spending more money and no more troops.

Ryan - Jacksonville, Florida
Try as we all might, we can never stop all wars. Why? Because it is a basic trait that all beings share. But we can curtail it. There has been too much talk, condemnations and resolutions that mean nothing. Not that war is the answer but the only thing that some people/ nations understand is actions. Harsh actions are needed to quell certain movements or groups. There is a reason the empires such as Rome, Egypt and even Saladin in Persia lasted for hundreds and thousands of years. Until we start doing things that are meaningful and punish those that do wrong then the Irans, Syrias, North Koreas and even Al Qaedas of the world will have no reason to adhere to any rules or resolutions, and countries like Israel and the U.S. will have to protect their "interests". If we don't learn from history, we WILL repeat it.

Israel has a long history of provoking violence from its neighbors. Once acting upon that provocation, Israel then claims self defense. How many Palestinian children...or leaders...are shot by Israeli soldiers just as talks of ceasefires are started? It happens all the time. With the constant threat Israel poses to many of its border enemies, it's difficult to think of these groups as terrorist organizations. Sure, if they had other means of protection I could see the title. But when blowing yourself up in a public area is the ONLY defense you have (thanks, in part, to the US and her unconditional support of Israel), is it terrorism or self preservation?

Israel seems as hard as the people that attempted to destroy them in another war. I believe if we in the United States were not so medicated we just may be offended by the atrocities we are committing here and abroad.
We are in the ZONE, we have lost our opinions, we feel no pain.

Ayul Zamir - Rockville, Maryland
According to a recent op-ed by Roger Cohen--Israel was a mistake of history: what was the wisdom in establishing a European Jewish state in the middle of the Arab world? And now the Jewish-Arab issue is at a risk of turning into a Jewish-American-Islamic issue. Perhaps it was not a mistake--perhpas the west just wanted a proxy state in the oil-rich desert, which happened not to belong to the Jewish-Christian west. There was no Hezbollah, then; Hezbollah got created after the creation of Israel. And now Israel and Hezbollah each have their supporters. The conflict did not start with the kidnapping of the soldiers. Perhaps it began with the attempts to bring down an elected government in Gaza, or perhaps with invasion of Iraq, or perhaps with the creation of Israel....Mr. Putin brushed Mr. Bush off twice recently, chiding Bush's weak attempts at selling 'democracy' easily with a laugh. One can only feel sad and regret the opportunities the US missed. This is not the end of history--but perhaps the beginning of the decline of a superpower (wasted American hegemony).

Toronto, Ontario
If Lebanon refuses to take responsibility for it's territory it shouldn't be suprised when a neighbor does---Syria, Israel, Iran or any other. Israel has enough firepower to destroy Lebanon several times over yet it fights with one arm tied behind its back. Hamas and Hezbollah do their absolute worst every day with no restraint. Israel targets bridges and infrastructure killing and injuring any civilians near it. Their enemies choose civilian targets first; rarely showing the ability or courage to directly face the Israeli military they claim to oppose the most. I see so many despicable governments in power across the Middle East; all claiming that every evil in the land comes from Israel. I know defeated peoples need to cling to their pride but after so long this is not only delusional and pathetic but self-destructive. For the situation to ever improve all sides must take an honest account of their own responsibilities and stop imagining their enemies as omnipotent and evil.

Scotsdale, Arizona
I just think that we humans are the ugliest specie in the world. I do not understand why we have to kill each other instead of accepting that we are different and also have different beliefs. Nevertheless, we all are created by the same being, and we all share this world.

Irving, Tx
You can learn a lot about Israel's intentions concerning the "ideal" Lebanon by paging back 20 years or Israel's invasion of Lebanon. This is nothing new.... "This is in no way an invasion of Lebanon," claims Dan Gillerman, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. "We have no desire to enter Lebanon. We left it six years ago without any desire to go back...What we're doing is part of trying to make Hezbollah incapable of shelling our cities and our villages and to kill our citizens." Source: CNN - Tyre - July 19,2006Notice that even though there are literally hundreds of photos showing Israeli tanks and artillery "shelling" Lebanon, we have Hezbollah apparently doing the type of shelling (i.e. rocket attacks) that matters to the rest of the world. I guess that "shelling" of the "chosen people" by unreliable and cheap rockets isn't acceptable, yet no one cares about the hundreds of 155 mm shells fired into Lebanon.

Chrsitopher Vogel - Tampa, Florida
It is so sad that so many innocent victims suffer while the prime villians remain unscathed. Israeli citizens suffer attack for merely trying to exist. Non-Hezbollah Lebanese suffer for violence of fellow countrymen they lack the power to control. Hezbollah itself justifiably suffers, although it is merely a pawn. The same is true of the Palestinians, who have been failed by their leaders and used and abused by fellow Arabs for years. The worst villians, the Iranian leadership, and their Syrian lackies, bring war to Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Pallestine, causing innocents to be killed everywhere, yet they suffer nothing. It is time for the world (including "old Europe", the Arab nations and Russia) to bring the true perpetrators to account and justice. Once that is accomplished, the world community should assist all free, peaceful nations to restore their countries so that people may live, raise their families, practice their religions of choice, and prosper. The world should abandon appeasement, forget about the price of oil, and stand together to allow peaceful people to live free of tyrants and terrorists.

Daniel Goguen - Ontario, Canada
Great article and great video report as well! My fellow Canadians on this forum do not speak for a nation. In fact, there was a recent forum on our national newspaper, the "Globe and Mail" in which most of the support (95%) and sympathy lay with the disproportionate number of Lebanese civilians that are dead. The few Israeli supporters on that forum were quickly rebuked. While I agree that both sides are to blame for policies of escalating violence, Israel is a first-world superpower which possesses American-made Apache helicopters, tanks and warheads and is currently "bullying" Lebanon in response to its own, less deadly form of retaliation. I think Robert McNamara's personal reflections (lesson 5 from "Fog of War") of the US firebombings of Japan are quite appropriate here: "Proportionality should be a guideline in war". Good luck over there and if possible I'd like to be kept up to date on your future works.

Marwa - Dubai, UAE
The events did not start with the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Israel has consistenly violated Lebanon's sovereignty through sea, air and land despite its partial withdrawal in 2000. The cross border attacks and firing of rockets across the border is not new! So please ask yourself, why now?
Also, a lot of the people Ms. Seelye interviewed would be against Hezbollah. They are middle to upper class and were not constantly terrorized by the Israelis in the same manner as the people of southern Lebanon. Now Israel is bombarding the entire country -- incinerating dozens of children in its bombing campaigns. Where is the outrage? They accuse Hezbollah of using Iranian and Syrian made weaponry? Well, Israel is using American weapons and jets and helicopters.

Toronto, ontario
When you say "a small miracle will rescue this very special country" do you mean Lebanon? What about Israel? Have the Jews not been through enough being betrayed and murdered since the time of WWII until today? Other than the U.S. and recently Canada, what support have they had from the world? None!

Dinesh Prasad - Kenner, Louisians
I think Hezbollah means party of ALLAH or god. How can they try to kill people in another country? Also Israel should stop bombing innocent people.

calgary, alberta
The Lebanese must now pay the piper for being too weak to expel Hezbollah... The Lebanese should have disarmed them as per the UN resolution to do so...