SEVENTEEN MI; NUTES IN QANA

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The Independent Culture
Last month's massacre of refugees in a UN base in the

Lebanon shook the Middle East. This is the first full

account of what happened, as told by the survivors

crying

Most of the people in Qana remember seeing "Um Ka'amel" above them that morning. It had rained earlier, but Haj Qassem Azam, who had brought his family down from the hill village of Siddiqin to seek safety in the Fijian UN base eight days earlier, clearly saw "the Mother of Ka'amel" over the town at mid-morning. The 70-year-old ex-foundry worker was to recall that it trailed a thin stream of grey smoke from its propellors. Kamel Saad, a 16-year-old schoolboy, saw it too. Colonel Wame Waqanivavalagi, commanding officer of the UN's Fijian battalion (Fijibatt), whose 150 soldiers at Qana were caring for 560 Lebanese refugees under the United Nations flag, was told by two of his soldiers that the Israeli MK pilotless reconnaissance aircraft was flying over his base. A mile away, at UN post 1-15, next to the headquarters of the UN's Force Mobile Reserve, a Norwegian soldier also noticed the MK moving over the valley towards Qana.

MK is the technical name for the drone that artillerymen use for spotting targets. But the hill villagers of southern Lebanon, many of them illiterate sheep farmers and agricultural workers, had humanised the sinister presence of Israel's state-of-the-art spy-in-the-sky in order to reduce the fear of the children. M sounds like "Um" - Arabic for "mother" - and the K - the letter kaaf in Arabic - was extended to make a boy's name, Ka'amel. Saadallah Balhas had taught his 20 children and grandchildren that they had nothing to fear from the "mother of Ka'amel" as it buzzed above them. "It was around all that morning," he remembers. "There was a helicopter, too, to the west of the village and, very high, a bigger plane, making a mist behind it." UN observers noted that a high-altitude AWACS aircraft circled southern Lebanon during the morning, its contrails streaming across the sky.

Hours before the massacre of 18 April, a unit of Fijian soldiers noticed another sinister presence: three bearded Hizbollah men firing two Katyusha rockets from the old cemetery 350 metres from the UN base. Captain Pio of the Fijian Battalion noticed later, close to the main road east of Qana, four more Hizbollah men. "I could see them firing mortars," he says. "They had flak jackets and steel helmets. I watched them through my binoculars." They were perhaps 600 metres from the UN compound. Captain Ronnie, the UN's communications officer, received no "shell warning" from Israel - the usual practice when the Israelis planned to fire artillery in a UN battalion's area of operations - but the Fijians were worried enough after the Hizbollah mortar fire to make an announcement over the Tannoy system, ordering all their soldiers to put on flak jackets and prepare to move the refugees into the bunkers.

It was just after 2pm. "Because Fijian soldiers have been in Qana for 18 years, many of the villagers have picked up the Fijian language, and they understood the words on the Tannoy," Kamel Saad says. "We all went to the rooms where our families were living." Saadallah Balhas thinks that they had about five minutes. A Fijian soldier was to recall with shock that many mothers could not find their children - they were playing in other parts of the five-acre compound - and refused to go into the bunkers. "We were pushing them into our own bunkers, squeezing them in until there was no room for us," the soldier said. "There was crying and we were telling the others to go into the places where they were living." The refugees were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the hot interiors. "Our bunkers were for 150 soldiers and we had pushed 400 into them, maybe more," Colonel Wame says. "There was no more room." In the two minutes that followed the Fijian warning, up to 300 more people who had remained in the village around the UN base ran in panic through the gates for shelter, along with - so another soldier recalled - at least one of the three Hizbollah Katyusha men. There were now around 850 civilians in the UN base at Qana.

All who survived the coming horror would remember where they were in the following seconds. Haj Azam sat on the floor of a UN officer's room near the back gate, along with his wife, Rdiyeh, his son Mohsin and Mohsin's wife, Leila. Kamel Saad took refuge with his 50-year-old mother, Fawzieh, and one of his cousins in a neighbouring room along with 20 others. Sulieman Khalil, a 23-year-old labourer from the much-bombed village of Jebel al- Butm, had just received his lunch packet and returned to the UN soldier's billet in which he was living. Saadallah Balhas was still recovering from a bone implant operation that followed wounds he had sustained in Israel's 1993 bombardment of southern Lebanon and had to be carried by his children - his right leg in a plaster cast - into the Fijian battalion's conference room, a rectangular building of corrugated iron with a wooden roof.

His extended family all squeezed into the same room and sat around him; his wife, Zeinab, his sons Ghalib, Ali, Fayad, Merhij, Khalil, Mohamed, Ibrahim and Mahmoud and his daughters Najibi, Nayla, Fatmi, Zohra, Amal, Khadijeh. Many of the children were still young - Fatmi was 16, Amal 12, and Mahmoud was only five. Ali's wife, Zohra, was also crammed into the room, along with their children, seven-year-old Zeinab, six-year-old Abbas, five-year-old Fatmi, three-year-old Saadallah. Their youngest child, Hassan, was only four months old. Also in the room were Saadallah's brothers Mohamed and Rahamatallah and the latter's wife and five children and a granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Some of the children were crying. Most sat in silence.

Nayla Berji's family were in the same tiny room as Balhas and his children - her 90-year-old father, Abbas, her mother, Khairiyeh, her two brothers, Hussein and Mustapha, Hussein's wife, Fatmi, and their three children - Manal, aged 15, Mariam, 11, and Ibrahim, just six. Also there were Nayla's 20-year-old sister Ghada and her two children and a 30-year-old niece, Skayneh, along with four cousins. Nayla herself was standing at the door of one of the bunkers.

At 2.08pm - Colonel Wame, the CO, is certain of the time - the first Israeli shell exploded near the UN's water- tower, 10 metres from where Captain Pio, the soldier who had seen the Hizbollah through his binoculars, was standing behind the battalion's outdoor food refrigerator near the main gate. "I found big slivers of shrapnel in my jacket three days later," he said. "But it didn't touch me. I ran round the building and told the other Fijian soldiers to stand close to the walls. There were two Lebanese refugees there, too, and I told them to get under cover - they ran to the conference room. When I reached the bomb shelter, it was packed. I tried to push more people in. Then the shells poured in."

In the conference room, Saadallah Balhas sat with his family, almost 40 strong, clustered tightly around him. The wooden roof above him would not even withstand a bullet, let alone a shell. Several of the women were praying in Arabic for God's protection. The second Israeli shell was fitted with a proximity fuse; the round would burst seven metres above the ground and amputate the limbs of any humans beneath it. It exploded directly above the conference room.

"There was a terrible explosion, and the first thing I felt was hot, wet liquid all over the right side of my face," Saadallah Balhas was to remember. "I couldn't see out of my right eye. There was a great flash of fire and I felt myself burning. I was deaf. There were more shells - there was no space between the sound of the explosions. I was still conscious and I felt blood, so much blood running down my face. I pushed the blood away with my hand and wiped my hand on the mattress. Everyone was shrieking and crying."

In the Fijian radio room, the windows broken and pieces of shrapnel hissing above them, a lone Fijian officer crouching on the floor blurted out a plea for help. "Our headquarters are under fire," he shouted to the UN operations office near the Israeli border. "One of our headquarters buildings has been demolished." An Irish UN officer at the UN's command headquarters 15 miles away tried to calm him, then a Lebanese army liaison officer attached to the Fijian battalion cut into the radio channel from a building opposite the UN's Qana compound. "People are dying here," he said. "I hear the voice of death."

The senior Lebanese army officer in Qana, who was standing beside him, saw the rear gates of the UN compound burst open and a mass of wounded people storm like cattle out of the base, without arms, several without feet, running on the open stumps of legs, leaving behind them "rivers of blood". In Sulieman Khalil's room, his friend Ibrahim Taki was catapulted to the floor with his throat cut open. "I didn't know he was already dead and wanted to help him," Khalil remembered. "I ran into the open, across to the UN clinic, but no one would come to the door. I threw stones at the windows and broke them but there were only civilians there and no one would come and help."

Khalil decided to run back to his room. "But as I turned, a shell fell near me, maybe only 3ft away. I fell over. I looked up and couldn't see my left leg. I realised it had been blown off. I was stunned and tried to stand on it - tried to stand on the leg that wasn't there - but I couldn't so I started crawling away in case a second shell hit me. I crawled as far as a container and sat in its shade and the moment I sat down, three shells exploded where I had been hit. The moment I saw that, I became unconscious."

At that moment, the Fijian assistant medical officer, Warrant Officer Apimeleki, was in the bomb shelter of the first aid post close to the conference room. "After the first shell hit the room, I heard terrible screams from inside - animal screams," he said. "There were people inside who had been cut to bits but were still alive. Then a second shell hit the building and that stopped the screaming. There was quiet after that." The second shell had smashed the roof off the conference room, torn off most of the steel walls and set fire to what was left. Inside this charnel house, Saadallah Balhas was still alive. "The second shell exploded very near me," he said. "I looked around me with my left eye. The place was swirling in smoke. The second shell - how do you say it? - had 'completed the job'. I looked at my children to see who was still alive. They were all round me, little people, and I shook each one - Khadijeh, Ibrahim, Amal, Mohamed... I was crying so much and each one I shook, they didn't move. I started turning them over and they were all dead on top of each other. They lay there in front of me like dead sheep, my whole family."

Fawzieh Saad, schoolboy Kamel's 50-year-old mother, ran out of the neighbouring building. "It was a horrible sight," she said. "A man was lying in two pieces. There was a woman who was pregnant and I could see the arm and leg of her unborn baby poking out of her stomach. There was a man who had shrapnel in his head. He was not dead but you could see a piece of metal in his neck, like he'd had his throat cut. He told his daughter to come to help him and lift him up. And I heard her say: 'Wait a minute, I'm trying to put my brother together - he's in two pieces.' There was another brother holding a child in his arms. The child had no head. The brother was dead too."

The woman trying to reassemble her dead brother was 35-year-old Nayla Berji, who had been at the door of the bunker when the two shells smashed into the conference room. "I tried to pull my mother out of the fire but I couldn't because she had no arm and I couldn't lift her up," she was to recall days later. "It was then that I saw my father, Abbas, on the ground and two of my brothers. I tried to rescue my sister-in-law Leila but her face was completely cut away and burnt. She had been hit by the shell. I wanted to see if there was anyone else but there was fire all around and I couldn't get any closer. Even the trees were burning, their leaves all on fire. The shells were still landing."

Across the valley in the base of the UN's Force Mobile Reserve, a Norwegian soldier had begun to make an amateur videotape of the Israeli attack on the Qana compound, his camera catching "Um Ka'amel" as it buzzed low over the sky above the camp - evidence that would later be used by the UN's inquiry team to refute repeated Israeli denials that there was a "spotter" drone over the scene of the massacre. A mile away, at UN position 1-15, a Norwegian soldier could hear human shrieks of pain after a shell exploded above the flimsy wooden battalion restaurant in which another 50 refugees were sheltering. "It may seem unreal," he said, "but we actually saw with our own eyes what seemed to be an animal thrown into the sky - 50ft, probably more - right out of the UN base. But then we realised it was coloured blue and that it was a human."

There was nothing unreal about it. Nayla Berji was only yards away. "I saw this man go up into the air," she said. "The blast of the explosion just made him fly. He went up and up and up, and his head came off and caught in the burning tree and the rest of him fell to the ground. My elder brother was telling me to find his wife, Manal, and Fatmi, their daughter. They were both dead, their bodies burnt black. I found my niece Mariam but couldn't recognise her and shouted: 'Are you Mariam?' When I found my father, I tried to lift him up but his intestines spilled out over me. When I found my brother, I tried to lift him up but all I lifted was his lower half. There was no head, no arms. My brother was lying there and his guts were coming out of his stomach."

Nayla Berji gave this terrible witness to her family's catastrophe as she talked to me, heavily sedated, in the Jebel Amal hospital. "I don't know where I got the strength to see these things," she said, her voice rising to a wail. "Those people were very, very dear to me and when I saw them like that, I cannot tell you what I suffered. What I have seen and what I experienced - I tell you, it has ruined the rest of my life."

Dozens of terribly wounded civilians were now crowding into Warrant Officer Apimeleki's small medical centre. "One of our Fijian soldiers came in with his left arm hanging on by a piece of skin - the bones had been torn out," he said. "Then people just flooded in, there was blood all over the floor and the walls. There were children, babies, old women. There were such screams. And people kept shouting: 'Fiji why? Fiji why? Help us.' They couldn't understand why the UN base was being targeted. Eventually we reached the restaurant to look for wounded, but there were just corpses. We never thought they would all be killed in there."

Haj Azam, who had seen the Israeli "drone" earlier in the day, lay on the floor of the Fijian officer's room where he was billeted, but pieces of shrapnel began to cut through the walls and roof. "A woman was hit in the head and part of it was sliced away. Her husband lay down beside her and held her. He was shouting for help and crying. Their two-year- old son was with them. She died later in the Hammoud hospital in Sidon." A Fijian soldier fought his way into the smoking embers of the conference room and dragged Saadallah Balhas out of what had been the door. "I saw my nephew wounded and told the Fijian to help him first - he died later," Balhas said later. "Then I found my old crutches by the door and hobbled out on my own. And what I saw - even if you have a strong heart, you would collapse at what I saw." Balhas could see with only his left eye - he did not yet realise that his right eye had been blasted out of its socket into the fires by the second shell. "There were pieces of meat, bodies without arms, corpses without heads. I tried to get to the clinic and I found my son Ali alive. He took me by the arm and started to show me the corpses, to identify them. He would say: 'This is your son Ghalib, he is dead.' Then he would point to a girl and say: 'This is little Khadijeh, she is dead too' and 'This is your wife, Zeinab, she is dead.' We found little Mahmoud alive and Merhij and Ali's son, three-year-old Saadallah, alive; they had been protected by their brothers and sisters, heaped on top of them, all dead."

Inside the Fijian base, the shells had cut off all electricity and damaged the UN's radio network. Colonel Wame was using his back-up radio, his messages relayed through the officer commanding a UN convoy passing through a valley five miles away. On the UN's Channel 6 radio, Commandant Eamon Smyth of the Irish Army was recording that "Fijibatt headquarters is still under fire." At UN headquarters, another Irish voice tried to comfort the desperate Fijian soldiers at Qana. "Help is on its way," it said. An appeal had been sent to the Israelis to stop firing. But the shells continued to fall.

Inside the Qana compound, the Fijian soldiers who ran to help the wounded found themselves slipping on pieces of flesh. Wounded men and women were crying: "Ya Allah, ya Allah" - "Oh God, oh God." Several of the Fijians, recognising the bodies of babies whom they had cradled in their own arms over the previous week - the Fijians liked to help the mothers by rocking the younger children to sleep each evening - broke down in tears and wept in front of the refugees they could no longer protect. Like the south Lebanese, the Fijians are primarily subsistence farmers, whose families form the centre of their lives.

In his room inside the compound - along with 20 other people - the 16- year-old schoolboy Kamel Saad was one of the last to be hit. "I heard a lot of screaming, people shouting 'Help me!' and 'My children!'," he said. "There was a father who came into our room to see his son. As he came in, a shell burst and his leg was blown off, just like that. I was hiding as best I could, lying flat on the ground, but a piece of a shell cut through my thigh. I was screaming myself now and my father bandaged my leg with a towel. He carried me out of the room, and outside there were people crying, 'Come and help us, please help us.' " Lying on the ground, Kamel Saad could see the burning conference room. "There were people carrying their children who didn't seem to understand that the children were dead, that they had no heads or arms. I didn't know who was dead or wounded. There was blood everywhere and people were shouting, 'God help us, please help us.' But no help came right away because people were looking after their own families." The last Israeli shell fell at 2.25pm.

The bodies still in the conference room were now on fire, cremated by the burning roof that had crashed upon them. In the restaurant - once an ornate Fijian-style barn with a sloping roof - heaps of dead lay piled together, their arms wrapped around each other. Colonel Wame wept openly. One of the Hizbollah men who fired the mortars was later seen by a Fijian soldier running into the Qana camp to find his whole family dead. "These are my people," he kept shouting. When the first UN soldiers arrived to help, they found more dead than wounded; the Israeli proximity shells had seen to that. Several of the soldiers just sat down and put their heads in their hands.

The news agencies would later say that at least 100 died. The United Nations sent 75 body bags out of Qana, but many were filled with the corpses of three, even four babies. The Lebanese army compiled a list of 84 names of dead, including those of two children, Aboudi and Hadi, from the Bitar family, who had arrived in Lebanon from their American home only days earlier. Their 90-year-old grandmother had pleaded with their Lebanese- born parents in Detroit to send them to Qana so that she could see them before she died. She lost an arm in the Israeli massacre but survived; the children died. A list of missing people - and a body found outside the camp more than two weeks later - suggests that up to 140 civilians may have been massacred by the Israeli shellfire.

Haj Azam from Siddiqin lost his granddaughter and her husband and their 20-day-old baby and two other brothers. Nayla Berji lost 16 members of her family: they included her father, Abbas, her sister-in-law Fatmi, her brother Hussein, his daughter, Manal, her other brother, Mustapha, his wife, Leila, her sister Ghada, and her nine-month-old son, Hassan, along with Nayla's niece Skayneh and four cousins. In all, Saadallah Balhas lost 31 members of his family. When he talked for the first time about the massacre, he asked only that as many as possible of their names should be published, as a memorial to them: they include his wife, Zeinab, his sons Ghalib, Fayad, Mohamed, Ibrahim and five-year-old Mahmoud, and his daughters Nayla, Fatmi, Zohra, Amal and six-year-old Khadijeh. His son Ali's wife, Zohra, died. So did their six-year-old son Abbas, five-year- old Fatmi and four-month-old Hassan. Saadallah's brother Mohamed was killed, as was his brother Rahamatallah and his wife and all his five children, along with the daughter and son of one of his children.

The Israelis blamed the Hizbollah for the slaughter, claimed that their artillery had fired into the camp owing to technical malfunctions while shooting at the source of the Katyushas, and insisted that there was no "mother of Ka'amel" over Qana during the day. The UN videotape proved conclusively that the Israelis did use pilotless aircraft over Qana on 18 April - the Israelis changed their story when they learnt of the tape. UN investigators stated that 13 Israeli shells had hit the Qana compound, eight of them fitted with the deadly proximity fuses. It was "unlikely", their report concluded, that the massacre was an "error". The Hizbollah denied that any of its members had fired Katyushas or mortars from the area of the UN camp. The United States refused to condemn Israel or the slaughter; the State Department spokesmen said that "You don't lecture your friends" and that Washington continued to support Israel's military operation in Lebanon.

Its name, Operation Grapes of Wrath, was taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, which is filled with blood, Biblical ire and promises of God's vengeance. Chapter 32, the song of Moses before he dies leading his Jewish people towards the promised land, speaks of those who will be destroyed by the wrath of God. "The sword without, and terror within, shall destroy both the young man and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of grey hairs," says Verse 25. Could there be a better description of those 17 minutes at Qana? !

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