Living a nightmare with Qana's dead

A year after Israel shelled a UN camp in Lebanon, killing more than 200 civilians, Robert Fisk meets the shattered survivors

Qana, southern Lebanon - Saadallah Balhas greeted me with a new glass eye to replace the one blasted out of his head by an Israeli shell a year ago this week. Old Khairiyeh Berji couldn't stand up to greet me, because she has only one leg now and her right arm is missing. Her daughter Najla, who desperately tried to revive her dead brothers in the blood of Qana, sits silently beside her, living on tranquillisers, like most of the other survivors of the Israeli massacre.

When the three-year-old at their feet hears the Israeli photo-reconnaissance drone moving over the hills, as it did during the massacre, he clambers beneath his bed in terror. The Israeli shells killed his grandparents a year ago.

The scars may have healed but they have left behind a more terrible, invisible mutilation. "I live in my nightmares and dreams with people who are no longer here," Mr Balhas says, staring at me with that dead, sinister brown glass eye of his.

On 18 April 1996, 31 members of his family were literally cut to pieces around him, including his wife Zeinab, his sons Ghalib, Mohamed and Fayid and five-year old Mahmoud and his daughters Nayla, Fatmi, Zohra, Amal and six-year old Kahdija.

He wears their portraits inside a cellophane envelope on his chest, an identity card of the dead. And they look down on us from a collage of photographs framed on the wall.

"When I close my eyes, I see them but when I open my eyes, there is no one there. When I see them in my dreams, they talk to me, as if life is normal. And I live with them still. I believe death is more preferable to this because when I die, I will be able to relax. But while I'm alive, I am dying every minute."

The Balhas family are buried in the mass grave next to the Fijian UN headquarters in Qana, a few yards from the place of their deaths, sealed beneath concrete and marble tombs along with the other civilian victims of the massacre. In all 109 are buried here, approximately 55 of them children.

"I visit the graves every day, whenever I have free time," Saadallah Balhas says. The wind blows chill through the door of his cement home in the village of Siddiqin, from where he and his family fled to Qana for the UN's protection a year ago. "The graves are almost my substitute home now. I recite the 'Fatiha', the opening words of the Koran. I only know precisely where Ghalib lies. I was in hospital when they were all buried and I made people swear they would tell me exactly where each was put. But I only found one person who remembered and he only knew where Ghalib was buried."

Like other survivors, Saadallah Balhas has received compensation from the local Lebanese authorities - just over pounds 8,000 for each victim over 10, pounds 4,000 for each child under ten. His own wounds are treated free - not for the first time. Wounded in Israel's 1993 bombardment of southern Lebanon, he still had a steel rod in his leg after an Israeli shell hit his home three years earlier when he was trapped in the slaughter at Qana.

The Israelis shelled the UN compound and its hundreds of civilian refugees for 17 minutes after Israeli troops, who were busy laying booby-trap bombs inside the UN's zone in southern Lebanon, had come under Hizbollah mortar attack.

The Hizbollah fired 600ft from the UN base. The Israelis later claimed that their sustained shelling of the compound was a mistake, denying that a photo-reconnaissance drone was taking pictures at the time - until The Independent produced a video of the drone taken by a UN soldier.

It was the culmination of an Israeli bombardment that left almost 200 Lebanese dead - 13 of them guerrillas, the rest civilians. The assault followed a Hizbollah rocket attack on northern Israel, which in turn had been prompted by the killing of a Lebanese teenager by a booby-trap bomb suspected to have been laid by the Israelis. The UN concluded that the Qana massacre was unlikely to have been an error, a diplomatic way of saying it believed the shelling was deliberate.

Khairiyeh Berji takes the same view, sitting like a curled statue on her sofa, weeping because the stump of her right arm still burns into her and because she can only hop like a bird through her cold house on the arm of her grand-daughters.

"For a year I've been sitting here like this," she wails at me. "All day I just sit here and cry. My arm is on fire and I feel something gnawing at the stump of my leg all the time. I can't sleep in the day and I can't sleep at night."

Her daughter Najla, who in a horrific stupor had tried to fit her dead brothers and her father together on that dreadful day, although they had been dismembered, looks at me with the same drugged eyes she had when last I saw her in the Tyre hospital a year ago, alongside Saadallah Balhas and her mother. "Every day we go to the graves. We talk about the past and what we in the family used to talk about when we were all here, the trips we went on, the meals we had together," she says. "We still do not feel they have died, especially the children. We still expect them to come back from a trip any day".

Najla Berji saw 16 members of her family killed around her, including her father Abbas, her sister-in-law Fatmi, her brothers Mustapha and Hussein, his little daughter Manal, her sister Ghada and Ghada's nine-month-old son Hassan.

On Friday, they will be remembered at a Qana commemoration by the Lebanese government, at which UN officers and the victims' families will stand together at the mass grave. The survivors will then be forgotten for another year.

Suggested Topics
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Mentor for people who have offended

This is an unpaid volunteer role. : Belong: We are looking for volunteers who ...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced TA's urgently...

Business StudiesTeacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Supply Business Studies Teacher...

English Teacher

£110 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: English Teacher - CaerphillyT...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?