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'Let the world save us from this aggression'

LAKE QARASOUN, Lebanon - Fleeing the Israeli warplanes and artillery that turned their villages into ghost towns, hundreds of Lebanese families are scattered under the trees at campsites. 'Let the world have mercy upon us and save us from this aggression,' Noor el- Hirshi said from Lake Qarasoun, a lush and tranquil place of orange groves and olive trees. 'Let them come and see what has become of us.'

The 24-year-old woman fled from her home in Sohmor on Sunday, piling into a truck with 25 relatives after Israel launched its mightiest offensive in Lebanon since its 1982 invasion.

Like the tens of thousands of other Lebanese who fled their homes this week, the Hirshi family brought little except a few easy-to-grab necessities like cooking pots and blankets.

Rabia Kamar, 16, also from Sohmor, said her mother told her that sleeping on the ground at Lake Qarasoun was cheaper than seeking shelter in another village. In a country whose economy has been ravaged by years of wars waged by Lebanese and foreigners, there is seldom such a thing as free sanctuary. Moving in with relatives - assuming they have safer space to share - usually means contributing money for meals.

'My 65-year-old father is sick and needs to lie down on a proper mattress because of his back pain,' Rabia said. Instead, he's sleeping on a blanket on the ground. Sohmor was among the first villages bombed in more than 100 air raids Israel carried out since Sunday.

Around Lake Qarasoun, refugees camping on the grass or in their cars and trucks seemed cut off from the world, knowing little except the booms of artillery and the Israeli planes. Those who brought transistor radios rationed their listening time for fear the batteries would run out before the shooting does. Most were Shias from Sohmor and other villages near the front line with Israel's self- designated 'security zone'.

About 20,000 civilians lived in that swathe of villages, home to some of the leaders and fighters of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah. Forty-eight hours after the start of Israel's offensive, the villages were deserted. Virtually all the residents had fled, many so fast that they left their doors standing open.

Further west, Nabatiyeh and surrounding villages were taking the heaviest pounding. Nabatiyeh, with a population of 35,000, is a stronghold for Amal, a Syrian-backed Shia group. On Monday, the second day of Israel's offensive, many people vowed to stay. By yesterday, reporters estimated that 85 per cent of the 75,000 people living in Nabatiyeh and nearby towns had fled.

Ali Badreddine, 38, of nearby Jibsheet, drove his family to Sidon when the raids began. 'The government says it supports the resistance against the occupiers and still they don't build us bomb shelters,' he said. 'There is no single shelter in the whole region. Every time since 1985, when Jibsheet is bombarded, I drive my family three or four hours to Beirut or to a mosque in Sidon.'

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