Published: 24 July 2006
They are in the schools, in empty hospitals, in halls and mosques and in the streets. The Shia Muslim refugees of southern Lebanon, driven from their homes by the Israelis, are arriving in Sidon by the thousand, cared for by Sunni Muslims and then sent north to join the 600,000 displaced Lebanese in Beirut. More than 34,000 have passed through here in the past four days alone, a tide of misery and anger. It will take years to heal their wounds, and billions of dollars to repair their damaged property.
And who can blame them for their flight? For the second time in eight days, the Israelis committed a war crime yesterday. They ordered the villagers of Taire, near the border, to leave their homes and then - as their convoy of cars and minibuses obediently trailed northwards - the Israeli air force fired a missile into the rear minibus, killing three refugees and seriously wounding 13 other civilians. The rocket that killed them is believed to have been a Hellfire missile made by Lockheed Martin in Florida.
Nine days ago, the Israeli army ordered the inhabitants of a neighbouring village, Marwaheen, to leave their homes and then fired rockets into one of their evacuation trucks, blasting the women and children inside to their deaths. And this is the same Israeli air force which was praised last week by one of Israel's greatest defenders - Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz - because it "takes extraordinary steps to minimise civilian casualties".
Nor have the Israelis spared Sidon. A heap of rubble and pancaked walls is all that is left of the Fatima Zahra mosque, a Hizbollah institution in the centre of the city, its minaret crumbled and its dome now sitting on the concrete, a black flag still flying from its top. When Israeli warplanes came early yesterday morning, the 75-year-old caretaker had no time to run from the building; he died of his wounds hours later. His overturned white plastic chair still lies by the gate. The mosque is unlikely to have been used for military purposes; a school belonging to the Hariris, Sidon's all-powerful Sunni family, stands next door; they would never have allowed weapons into the building.
Not that Hizbollah - which killed two more Israeli civilians with their rockets in Haifa yesterday - have respected Sidon, whose population is 95 per cent Sunni. They tried to fire Iranian-made missiles at Israel from the seafront Corniche and from beside the city slaughterhouse last week. On both occasions, residents physically prevented them from opening fire.
The multimillion-dollar Hariri Foundation - created by the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated last year - has helped 24,000 Shia refugees out of the south and on to Beirut but its generosity has not always been happily received. One group of refugees sheltering in a technical school in Meheniyeh punched and taunted Hariri workers. Elsewhere, the foundation's staff have been cursed by fleeing families. "They are telling us that we are working for the Americans and that this is why we are taking them out," said Ghena Hariri - Rafik's niece and a Georgetown graduate. "It is something that drains our energy. We are working 24 hours a day and at the end of the day they curse us. But I feel so sorry for them. Now they are being told by the Israelis to leave their villages on foot and they have to walk dozens of kilometres in this heat."
It's not difficult to see how this war can damage the delicate sectarian framework that exists in Lebanon. One group of Shia families - housed in a school in the Druze mountains of the Chouf - tried to put Hizbollah's yellow banners on the roof and members of Walid Jumblatt's Druze Popular Socialist Party had to tear them down. Their act may have saved the refugees' lives.
Yet many of the Shia in this beautiful Crusader port have learnt how kind their Sunni neighbours can be. "We are here - where else can we go?" Nazek Kadnah asked as she sat in the corner of a mosque which Rafik Hariri built and dedicated to his father, Haj Baha'udin Hariri. "But they look after us here as their brothers and sisters and now we are safe."
These sentiments provoke some dark questions. Why, for example, can't these poor people be shown the same compassion from Tony Blair as he supposedly felt for the Muslims of Kosovo when they were being driven from their homes by the Serbs? These thousands are as terrified and homeless as the Kosovo Albanians who fled to Macedonia in 1998 and for whom Mr Blair claimed he was waging a moral war. But for the Shia Muslims sleeping homeless in Sidon there is to be no such moral posturing - and no ceasefire suggestions from Mr Blair, who has aligned himself with the Israelis and the Americans.
And what exactly is the purpose of driving more than half a million people from their homes? Many of these poor people sit clutching their front-door keys, just as the Palestinians of Galilee did when they arrived in Lebanon 58 years ago to spend the rest of their lives as refugees. Yes, the Shia Muslims of Lebanon probably will go home. But to what? A war between the Hizbollah and a Western intervention force? Or further bombardment by the Israelis?
The Sidon refugees now have 36 schools in which they can shelter - but they are the lucky ones. Across southern Lebanon, the innocent continued to die. One was an eight-year-old boy who was killed in an Israeli air raid on a village close to Tyre. Eight more civilians were wounded when an Israeli missile hit a vehicle outside the Najem hospital in Tyre. And during the morning, one of Lebanon's journalists, Layal Nejib, a photographer for the magazine Al-Jaras whose pictures were also transmitted by Agence France Press, was killed in her taxi by an Israeli air strike near Qana, the same village in which 106 civilians were massacred in a UN base by Israeli artillery shells in 1996. She was only 23.
In her marble-walled home above Sidon, Bahia Hariri - Ghena's mother, the sister of the murdered former prime minister and a local member of parliament - sat grim-faced, scarcely controlling her fury. "We are in this terrible situation but we haven't any window to resolve this situation," she said. "Rafik Hariri is no longer with us. The international community is not with us. Who is with us? God. And the old Lebanese. And the Arab world, we hope, will help us. The only resistance we can show is to be a united Lebanon. But we have only a small margin in which to dream."