Marwahin, 15 July 2006: The anatomy of a massacre


In antiquity, Pliny wrote of the cliffs of Bayada. The chalk runs down to the Mediterranean in an almost Dover-like cascade of white rock, and the view from the top - just below the little Lebanese village of Chama'a - is breathtaking. To the south lies the United Nations headquarters and the Israeli frontier, to the north the city of Tyre, its long promentary, built by Alexander the Great, lunging out into the green-blue sea. A winding, poorly-made road runs down to the shore below Chama'a and for some reason - perhaps because he had caught sight of the Israeli warship off the coast - 58-year-old Ali Kemal Abdullah took a right turn above the Mediterranean on the morning of 15 July. In the open-topped pick-up behind him, Ali had packed 27 Lebanese refugees, most of them children. Twenty-three of them were to die within the next 15 minutes.

The tragedy of these poor young people and of their desperate attempts to survive their repeated machine-gunning from the air is as well-known in Lebanon as it is already forgotten abroad. War crimes are easy to talk about when they have been committed in Rwanda or Bosnia; less so in Lebanon, especially when the Israelis are involved. But all the evidence suggests that what happened on this blissfully lovely coastline two and a half months ago was a crime against humanity, one that is impossible to justify on any military grounds since the dead and wounded were fleeing their homes on the express orders of the Israelis themselves.

Mohamed Abdullah understands the reality of that terrible morning because his 52-year-old wife Zahra, his sons Hadi, aged six, and 15-year-old Wissam, and his daughters, Marwa, aged 10, and 13-year old Myrna, were in the pick-up. Zahra was to die. So was Hadi and the beautiful little girl Myrna whose photograph - with immensely intelligent, appealing eyes - now haunts the streets of Marwahin. Wissam, a vein in his leg cut open by an Israeli missile as he vainly tried to save Myrna's life, sits next to his father as he talks to me outside their Beirut house, its walls drenched in black cloth.

"From the day of the attack until now, lots of delegations have come to see us," Mohamed says. "They all talk and it is all for nothing. My problem is with a huge nation. Can the international community get me my rights? I am a weak person, unprotected. I am a 53-year-old man and I've been working as a soldier for 29 years, day and night, to be productive and to support a family that can serve society and that can be a force for good in this country. I was able to build a home in my village for my wife and children - with no help from anyone - and I did this in 2000, 23 years after I was driven out of Marwahin and I finished our new home this year." And here Mohamed Abdullah stops speaking and cries.

Marwahin is one of a string of villages opposite the Israeli border and, unlike many others further north, is inhabited by Sunni Muslim Lebanese, followers of the assassinated former prime minister Rafiq Hariri rather than the Shiite-dominated Hizbollah militia, which is supported and supplied by Syria and Iran. Most Sunnis blame Syria for Hariri's murder on 14 February last year.

While no friends of Israel, the Sunni community in Lebanon - especially the few thousand Sunnis of Marwahin who are so close to the frontier that they can see the red roofs of the nearest Jewish settlement - are no threat to Israel. For generations, they have intermarried - which is why most of the people in this tragedy hold the family name of al-Abdullah or Ghanem - and, had their parents been born a few hundred metres further south, they would - like the Sunni Muslim Palestinians who lived there until 1948 - have fled to the refugee camps of Lebanon when Israel was created.

Mohamed recalls with immense tiredness how his wife took his children south from Beirut to their family home in Marwahin on 9 July this year. The date is important because just three days later, Hizbollah members would cross the Israeli border, capture two Israeli soldiers and kill three others - five more were to die in a minefield later the same day - and Israel would respond with 34 days of air-strikes and bombardments that killed more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians. Hizbollah missiles would kill fewer than 200 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

Just down the hill from Marwahin, on Israeli territory, stands a tall radio transmission tower and on the morning of 15 July, the Israelis used loudspeakers on the tower to order the villagers to flee their homes. Survivors describe how they visited two nearby UN posts to appeal for protection, one manned by four members of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation - set up after the 1948 war with Israel - and the other by Ghanaian soldiers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, the same army which, much expanded with French, Italian, Turkish and Chinese troops, is now supposed to police the latest ceasefire in southern Lebanon. Both the UNTSO men and the Ghanaians read the rule-book at the villagers of Marwahin. Ever since the Israelis attacked the UNIFIL barracks at Qana in 1996, slaughtering 106 Lebanese refugees - again, most of them children - the UN has been under orders not to allow civilians into their bases. The UN, it seems, can talk mightily of the need to protect the innocent, f but will do precious little to shield them in southern Lebanon.

Mohamed's four children had travelled south with their mother to buy furniture for their newly-built home; their father and his six other children in Beirut were to join them the following week.

"When the Israeli soldiers were taken, the airport closed down and all the roads became dangerous," Mohamed says. "But the mobile phones still worked and I had constant conversations with my wife. I asked her what was happening in the village. She said the Israelis were bombing in the fields around the village but not in the village itself. She had no car and anyway it was too dangerous to travel on the roads. On 13 and 14 July, we spoke six or seven times. She was asking about those of our children who were with me. You see, she had heard that Beirut had been bombed so we were worried about each other."

Mohamed's calvary began when he turned to the Arabia television station on the morning of the 15th. "I heard that the people of Marwahin had been ordered by the Israelis to leave their homes within two hours. I tried to call my wife and children but I couldn't get through. Then after half an hour, Zahra called me to say she was in the neighbouring village of Um Mtut and that people had gone to the UN to seek help and been turned away."

Mohamed insists - though other villagers do not agree with this - that while the UN were turning the civilians away, a van drove into Marwahin containing missiles. The driver was a member of Hizbollah, he says, and its registration number was 171364 (Lebanese registrations have no letters). If this is true, it clearly created a "crisis" - to use Mohamed al-Abdullah's word - in the village. Certainly, once the ceasefire came into place 32 days later, there was a damaged van beside the equally damaged village mosque with a missile standing next to it. Human rights investigators are unclear of the date of the van's arrival but seem certain that it was attacked by the Israelis - probably by an air-fired rocket - after Marwahin was evacuated.

In her last conversation with her husband, Zahra told Mohamed that the four children were having breakfast in a neighbour's house in Um Mtut. "I told her to stay with these people," Mohamed recalls. "I said that if all the civilians were together, they would be protected. My brother-in-law, Ali Kemal al-Abdullah, had a small pick-up and they could travel in this." First to leave Marwahin was a car driven by Ahmed Kassem who took his children with him and promised to telephone from Tyre if he reached the city safely. He called a couple of hours later to say the road was OK and that he had reached Tyre. "That's when Ali put his children and my children and his own grandchildren in the pick-up. There were 27 people, almost 20 of them children."

Ali Kemal drove north from Marwahin, away from the Israeli border, then west towards the sea. He must have seen the Israeli warship and the Israeli naval crew certainly saw Ali's pick-up. The Israelis had been firing at all vehicles on the roads of southern Lebanon for three days - they hit dozens of civilian cars as well as ambulances and never once explained their actions except to claim that they were shooting at "terrorists". At a corner of the road, where it descends to the sea, Ali Kemal suddenly realised his vehicle was overheating and he pulled to a halt. This was a dangerous place to break down. For seven minutes, he tried to restart the pick-up.

According to Mohamed's son Wissam, Ali - whose elderly mother Sabaha was sitting beside him in the front - turned to the children with the words: "Get out, all you children get out and the Israelis will realise we are civilians." The first two or three children had managed to climb out the back when the Israeli warship fired a shell that exploded in the cab of the pick-up, killing Ali and Sabaha instantly. "I had almost been able to jump from the vehicle -- my mother had told me to jump before the ship hit us," Wissam says. "But the pressure of the explosion blew me out when I had only one leg over the railing and I was wounded. There was blood everywhere."

Within a few seconds, Wissam says, an Israeli Apache helicopter arrived over the f vehicle, very low and hovering just above the children. "I saw Myrna still in the pick-up and she was crying and pleading for help. I went to get her and that's when the helicopter hit us. Its missile hit the back of the vehicle where all the children were and I couldn't hear anything because the blast had damaged my ears. Then the helicopter fired a rocket into the car behind the pick-up. But the pilot must have seen what he was doing. He could see we were mostly children. The pick-up didn't have a roof. All the children were crammed in the back and clearly visible."

Wissam talks slowly but without tears as he describes what happened next. "I lost sight of Myrna. I just couldn't see her any more for the dust flying around. Then the helicopter came back and started firing its guns at the children, at any of them who moved. I ran away behind a tel [a small hill] and lay there and pretended to be dead because I knew the pilot would kill me if I moved. Some of the children were in bits."

Wissam is correct about the mutilations. Hadi was burned to death in Zahra's arms. She died clutching his body to her. Two small girls - Fatmi and Zainab Ghanem - were blasted into such small body parts that they were buried together in the same grave after the war was over. Other children lay wounded by the initial shell burst and rocket explosions as the helicopter attacked them again. Only four survived, Wissam and his sister Marwa among them, hearing the sound of bullets as they "played dead" amid the corpses.

His father Mohamed heard on the radio that a pick-up had been attacked by the Israelis at Bayada, perhaps 10km from Marwahin. "When I heard that the driver was Ali Kemal al-Abdullah, I knew - I knew - that my children were on that truck," he says, "because my brother-in-law would not have left them behind. He would have taken them with him. I had another brother in Tyre and I called him. He had heard the same news and was waiting at the hospital. He said it was too dangerous to travel from Beirut to Tyre. He said that my family were only wounded. I said that if they were only wounded, I wanted to speak to them. I spoke to Marwa. She said Wissam was in the operating theatre. I asked to speak to the others. My brother just said: 'Later.'"

No one who has travelled the roads of southern Lebanon under Israeli air attack can underestimate the dangers. But Mohamed and his nephew Khalil decided to make the run to Tyre in the afternoon. "We just drove fast, all the way," Mohamed remembers. "I got to the Hiram hospital and I found Ali, my brother, waiting for me. I saw Marwa and I asked about her mother and Hadi and Myrna and she said: 'I saw them in the pick-up, sleeping. When the ship hit us, I was blown out of the vehicle. Afterwards, I saw Mummy and my brother sleeping.'" Marwa told Mohamed that she had run from the pick-up with her 19-year-old cousin Zeinab.

When Mohamed drove to the city hospital in Tyre in search of Zahra, Hadi and Myrna, his brother refused to travel with him. "At this point, I knew there was something wrong. So I went to the hospital on my own and I found my wife and children in the fridge. It was a horrible shock. To this day, I feel like I am dreaming. And I cannot believe what happened. No one came to ask me about Marwa or Wissam who lost a vein in his leg. It seems no one knows that this house has martyrs."

Before the ceasefire in southern Lebanon, Mohamed was called to say that the medical authorities in Tyre wished to bury the dead of Marwahin temporarily in a mass grave. He attended their burial and returned to his much-battered village on 15 August - just over a month after his wife and two children were killed and in time for their final interment on 24 August. He found his house partially destroyed in the Israeli bombardment along with the van and its Hizbollah rockets. "Every day is worse than the one before for me," Mohamed says.

And he blames the world. The UN for giving no protection to his family, Hizbollah's "vanity" in starting a war with a more powerful enemy and the Israelis for destroying the life of his family. "Is Israel in a state of war with children? We need an answer, a response to f this question. We ask for a trial for this Israeli pilot who killed the children. He is a war criminal because he killed innocents for no reason. And what has happened? The south has been destroyed. The people were massacred. The Israelis were back on the soil of my land. I could see them when we buried Zahra and Hadi and Myrna. How can I lose my children and then see the Israelis here? We are ignored by the government and treated with neglect by the media and the political parties - including the Hizbollah - who were the cause of what happened."

Almost all the "martyr" pictures of the dead of Marwahin contain a ghostly photograph of Rafiq Hariri, the mightest Sunni Muslim of them all, who was assassinated last year. The martyrs of Marwahin have become identified with a man who sought peace rather than war with Israel. But at the graveyard on the edge of the tobacco-growing village, there is no end to mourning. I found two old women sitting beside the graves, weeping and beating themselves and pulling at their hair. One of them was Ali Kemal's wife.

Adel Abdullah took me round the graves. His sister-in-law Mariam lies in one of them, her body still containing the unborn child she was carrying when she died. So are her five children, Ali, 14, Hamad, 12, Hussein, 10, Hassan, eight, and two-year-old Lama.

"This is Myrna," Adel says, patting his hand gently on the concrete surface of the little girl's still unadorned grave. "This is Zahra, her mother, whom we put just behind her. And here is Hadi." The villagers have written their first names in Arabic in the concrete. "There is Naame Ghanem and her two children. And this is the grave of both Fatmi and Zeinab because we could not tell which bits of them belonged together. That is why the 23 dead of Marwahin have only 22 graves."

On the dirt road to the cemetery on the windy little hill above the village, there still lies a face mask worn by the young men carrying the decomposing bodies to their final grave. And just to the left of the dead, clearly visible to the Israeli settlers in their homes across the border, the villagers have left the remains of Ali Kemal Abdullah's Daihatsu pick-up. It is punctured by a hundred shrapnel holes, bent and distorted and burned. The children in this vehicle had no chance, killed outright or smashed to pieces as they lay wounded afterwards.

"If it is right that these people should be martyred in this way, well fine," Adel says to me. "If not, why did this crime take place? Why can't a country - a single country, your country - say that Israel was responsible for a war crime? But no, you are silent." A woman, watching Adel's anger, was more eloquent. "The problem," she said, "is that these poor people belonged to a country called Lebanon and our lives are worth nothing to anyone else. If this had happened in Israel - if all these children were Israeli and the Hizbollah had killed them all with a helicopter - the US president would travel to the cemetery each year for a memorial service and there would be war crimes trials and the world would denounce this crime. But no president is going to come to Marwahin. There will be no trials."

Mohamed al-Abdullah weeps beside his wounded son in Beirut. "I consider this to have been a useless war and with these atrocious massacres it is innocent civilians who paid the price. Those who died are resting but we who are living are paying a price every day. That price is paid by the living who suffer. Why should I pay the price of something I didn't choose? I will say just one thing to you. God have mercy on Rafiq Hariri, a man of education and reconstruction. In God's name, I hope his children walk in his path. My wife loved Sheikh Rafiq so much. In this house, my wife's whole life changed after his assassination. Before, Zahra was not interested in politics but from the day his car was bombed, she listened to the news every day. Before bed, she wanted to hear any news. And she said to me once, 'I hope I don't die, so I will know who killed Rafiq Hariri'."

A UN investigation is still underway into Hariri's murder. An Israeli investigation is to start into the disastrous performance of its army during the war. The Hizbollah still claims it won a "divine victory" in July and August of this year. UNIFIL, which turned the refugees of Marwahin away on 15 July, stated that when they were removing the children's bodies, their soldiers came under fire. Human Rights Watch is still investigating the killings of civilians at Marwahin and other locations and wrote of them before the war ended. "The Israeli military," it said in its initial report, "did not follow its orders [to civilians] to evacuate with the creation of safe passage routes, and on a daily basis Israeli warplanes and helicopters struck civilians in cars who were trying to flee, many with white flags out the windows, a widely accepted sign of civilian status ... On some days, Israeli war planes hit dozens of civilian cars, showing a clear pattern of failing to distinguish between civilian and military objects." International law makes it clear that it is forbidden in any circumstances to carry out direct attacks against civilians and that to do so is a war crime. Human Rights Watch states that "war crimes" include "making the civilian population or individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities the object of attack".

Lama Abdullah was the youngest victim of the Marwahin 23. Ali Kemal's wife Sabaha was in her eighties. At least six of the children were between the ages of one and 10. The Israeli helicopter pilot's name is, of course, unknown.

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