Mass Funerals in Southern Lebanon

From Associated Press

Los Angeles Times

August 18, 2006

QANA, Lebanon -- The breeze blew fine dust across graves where 29 people killed in an Israeli airstrike -- half of them children -- were buried, as the ground was opened for funerals in south Lebanon today, the Muslim holy day.

Women in black robes, their heads hidden by black scarves, held pictures of the dead and threw rice and rose petals on the plywood caskets in the village of Qana, struck during the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah war. Twenty-six coffins were draped in the Lebanese flag and three in the yellow Hezbollah flag.

To the east, the Lebanese army symbolically took control of a first border village from withdrawing Israeli forces, as two soldiers drove slowly through Kfar Kila in a jeep. And in a bid to prevent more arms from reaching Hezbollah fighters, the government vowed to take over all border crossings nationwide, including 60 known smuggling routes from Syria.

At a school in south Beirut's Bourj el-Barajneh neighborhood, Hezbollah started handing out crisp $100 bills to residents who lost homes in the Israeli bombing campaign -- $12,000 to each claimant. The stacks of bills were pulled out of a suitcase. Hezbollah is financed by oil-rich Iran.

The Higher Relief Council, the government agency that deals with disasters, said today that the Lebanese government and U.N. agencies were undertaking assessments countrywide. While the government was still absent from the reconstruction effort, there were other offers of private help besides Hezbollah's direct payments.

Qana, about six miles southeast of the port city of Tyre, held the most elaborate of several funerals in southern Lebanon today after residents decided it was finally safe and hospital morgues made sure all bodies could be claimed. A caravan of cars made its way from one service to the next.

"This is the day to bury our dead," said Shiite cleric Sheik Shoue Qatoon. "It was decided that we would schedule the funerals so that we could all attend them all."

During the war, bodies were taken to the Tyre morgue and later buried in a shallow mass grave when refrigerated trucks holding the corpses became too crowded. Today, the bodies were exhumed and taken to the home villages for burial. The coffins were marked with the names of the dead.

Funerals in northern Israeli towns proceeded throughout the fighting, though they were sometimes disrupted by rocket fire. But because of the war in Lebanon, it sometimes took more than 24 hours to bring the bodies of soldiers to Israel for burial, the army said. Jewish law requires burial within 24 hours after death.

In the Lebanese village of Srifa, 12 miles east of Tyre, more than 20 people were buried in a mass grave today. Airstrikes damaged a large swath in the village center.

In Qana, the dead were buried in individual graves one beside the other.

Women broke into piercing screams as the 29 coffins were carried shoulder-high to the grave site, about a third of a mile from the two-story home blasted by an Israeli missile on July 30. World outrage caused Israel to announce a 48-hour halt in aerial attacks while it investigated the assault after Lebanese authorities initially said 56 people were killed.

Hezbollah flags were planted in the mound of earth scooped from the graves. Scores of cars paraded through Qana waving large Hezbollah flags. Banners stretched across the main street read in English: "The great Lebanon has defeated the murderers." Arabic language banners called the war dead "martyrs" and said civilian deaths in Qana "woke up the world."

The dead were all from the Shaloub and Hashem families of Qana.

Fatin Shaloub, a 23-year-old English teacher, lost several members of her family.

"I also lost five of my students," she said. "We didn't think the war would be horrible like this."

Hourra Shaloub, 12, was one of her favorite students and not just because she was a relative, Shaloub said.

"She was very, very smart. She always got top marks. I remember when I heard about the bombing and her death that I recalled her in a play three years ago. That's how I will always remember her, wearing her blue skirt and white T-shirt and singing very loudly," she said.

Throughout the day the hum of an Israeli drone could be heard. One of the pilotless planes also flew above south Beirut, according to Associated Press photographers in the area.

Israeli drones and warplanes also crisscrossed the skies above Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley today, near the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek, security officials said. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information to reporters, said there had been anti-aircraft fire to drive off the aircraft but no weapons fired by the Israeli drones and jet fighters.