Desperate voices go unheard as shells rain down

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The Independent Online
We heard the shells that killed them. From the ridge above the road to the coast, perhaps four miles south of Qana, the Israeli 155-millimetre guns were firing over our heads as we drove in a UN convoy from Tibnin to Tyre. It was just after 2pm.

All day the Israelis had been firing into southern Lebanon.

On a humanitarian convoy led by Commandant Eamon Smyth, a UN officer from Dublin, I was travelling down the coast road a little after breakfast when three Israeli jets swept out of the sky and dropped three bombs 250 metres to our right, spraying the UN vehicles with debris.

When the third jet dived, the crack of the explosion was followed by the sight of an entire house - walls, roof, chimneys - climbing 30ft into the sky. We sheltered behind the walls of a Fijian UN position, then gingerly continued our journey, carrying blankets, water and food to the refugees in Irish UN compounds as the shells hissed over the road above us.

It was on our way back that we heard the guns that would give new meaning to the offensive which the Israelis inexplicably called - and surely with deep regret today - "Operation Grapes of Wrath". One burst of fire sounded likeKatyusha missiles being fired from the area of Qana but my memory insists that the sound came during - not before - the big guns fired into Qana. We could hear the Israeli rounds landing, great thumps, audible inside our thin-skin UN vehicle.

It was exactly 2.10pm when the radio crackled in the front of the truck. "Our headquarters are being shelled," a voice said, a Fijian voice with just a hint of anxiety. There was a confirmation from the UN's operations headquarters in Naqqoura - and then the Fijian voice returned."The rounds [shells] are falling here now," it said.

We had heard Katyushas several times during the day, fired from across the hills. But there was no reference to them on the radio traffic; indeed, the operator at Qana may never have heard them. It was now 2.12pm.

UN operations came back over the air. "We are contacting the IDF [Israeli Defence Force]," the voice said, apparently an Irish officer. But the Fijian returned, desperate now. "Do you understand?" he shouted. "They are firing on us now. The headquarters is hit." We could hear that same thumping sound from across the valley as the rounds exploded on Qana. Back came the Fijian, so desperate that UN operations could not understand him.

It was now around 2.20pm. The sun was high in the sky. Visibility was good. The distant sound of shells could still be heard. There had been six incoming rounds, then more. The guns I had heard were firing a shell every five seconds. A Lebanese UN liaison man came on the line from the burning Qana UN headquarters. "People are dying here. We need help."

Naqqoura came back on the air. "Help is on its way, help is on its way, help is on its way." We could hear the UN's medevac emergency teams being ordered to Qana along with 70 UN personnel carriers and every available ambulance. "Air medevac is under way," a voice said, presumably at UN operations. "We have casualties, we have casualties, at least six dead." Commandant Smyth looked at me and said nothing. We both knew that there were 600 refugees in the Fijian battalion headquarters and that they must be dying in their dozens. They were.

By the time I had passed Tyre to turn east towards Qana, the UN operations room announced the Israelis had ordered a halt to all shelling across the UN zone to allow aid to reach Qana. It was untrue. Exactly two minutes later, the Irish UN troops at Tibnin radioed that their battalion area was under Israeli fire.

Driving at speed over the broken roads to Qana, the shelling lost its power to frighten. We could hear the bangs and thumps outside the vehicle, far away now, but the moment we approached Qana, we could see the dense clouds of white smoke rising from the embers of the Fijian headquarters. When we arrived, I found a set of bloody footprints at the gate and then a stream of blood running from a gutted building.

So what, we were left asking, was the justification for such a bloodbath? The Katyusha rockets - six of them - had most assuredly been fired from close to the UN compound at Qana, two minutes before the murderous burst of incoming shells. But the Israelis not only knew UN buildings were there and that they housed refugees; they could communicate via UN operations with the Fijians.

All morning I had heard UN posts across southern Lebanon receiving Israeli warnings of imminent air attacks in their area. Only a day earlier, however, UN Irish troops had to retreat from the village of Bradchit after the Israelis had been informed that they were taking humanitarian supplies into the village.

Yesterday, Fijian soldiers told me they received no Israeli warnings of incoming shellfire. All they knew was when the first rounds came crashing down upon the 600 men, women and children in their buildings.

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