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Familiar exodus of fear in a world that has gone mad



They left in their tens of thousands, the people of southern Lebanon, whey-faced with fear, many of the women in tears, crammed with aunts and children into old family cars with bedding on the roof and cooking utensils in the boot and blankets dangling from the windows. Israeli radio had given them just three hours to leave home or take the consequences, ordering the inhabitants of 32 villages on to the roads north before Israel's next blitz against the Hizbollah.

The Israelis had left it to their proxy "South Lebanon Army" militia to make the darker threats. "He who forewarns is excused," the SLA's Voice of the South radio announcer said at midday. There would be no consciences among those who opened fire after giving so clear a warning. At 2.30 pm the bombardment would begin, the radio said. Then it was postponed for two hours. And the thousands of Lebanese, trapped in endless jams of traffic on the narrow coastal road, sat sweating in their vehicles as the whisper of jets moved through the sky above them.

The highway was familiar. I had driven through refugees down this same road in 1978 when the Israelis invaded Lebanon to "destroy terrorism". I had travelled past the refugees on the highway in 1982 when Israel again invaded to "destroy terrorism". In 1993, I had headed south past 300,000 refugees when the Israelis opened a bombardment of southern Lebanon to "destroy terrorism". Now here I was again, driving on to the pavement to pass the fearful refugees moving north in the other direction as Israel opened a new onslaught to "destroy terrorism". Had the world gone mad?

Some of the refugees - the same in many cases, no doubt, as those who had fled past me in previous years - seemed to think so. In every car, a radio was clasped to the driver's ear; they knew all about the Hizbollah's Katyusha attack on the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona yesterday morning - itself retaliation for Israel's Thursday bombardment of Beirut - and they knew what to expect. You could see them shaking their heads in disbelief.

Already the Iqlim al-Kharoub was under fire and the hills around Nabatea. An Israeli jet was reported to have fired a missile into a town near Arnoun. And so the villages of the south, many of them old enough to appear in the annals of the Crusaders - Tibnin, Kafra, Yater, Bradchit, Khirbet Silm, Majd el-Silm, Haris - were depopulated.

Crossing south across the Litani river, I found the road almost empty. There were a few last refugees hobbling on foot, begging for lifts north, a clutch of Lebanese soldiers in their new American helmets - looking for all the world like US Marines in Bosnia - sitting on their armoured vehicles, staring skywards all the time, trying to catch sight of the insect-like jets as they flitted through the firmament; then the long Roman highway to Tyre, as empty as a railway track, ominously surveyed by a distant Israeli helicopter.

The city of Tyre was deserted, shuttered, the sea breeze banging unattended shutters, the United Nations flag snapping above the compound of the peace- keeping force on the sea front.

And inside, sheltering in a UN tent, I found one of southern Lebanon's saddest refugees. Mohamed Mera was 67 and had left his village of Kafra for Tyre to send his family of ten to Beirut for safety. Now he wanted to go back to his abandoned village, to die if necessary.

But no one would offer him a lift. "I stayed home in the Israeli bombardment of 1993 and was prepared to end my life there," he said . "Why should I leave now? Home is a good place to die."

And who did he blame for his predicament, I asked him. The prematurely old man with his white woollen cap and unshaven cheeks pointed his finger in the air. "What you know, I know," he said.

"All of us know. If it were up to us, there would be no war here. But the world is not in our hands." I did not have the heart to tell him what I just heard on my car radio: that the Israelis had just bombed the southern suburbs of Beirut - the very sanctuary to which he had sent his family.