The anatomy of a massacre
Marwahin, 15 July 2006
A special report by Robert Fisk
Independent" --- - 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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited
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