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
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The Independent Online
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.