TYRE, Lebanon – Soldiers laid 72 coffins in two trenches, a mass grave for victims of the Israeli bombardment. Elsewhere, mounds of rubble sat undisturbed; rescue workers were too fearful of missiles to search for bodies.
Lebanese have streamed out of south Lebanon since fighting erupted between Israel and Hezbollah last week, leaving some villages almost deserted. But many people are believed trapped in their homes — too poor to live anywhere else, too afraid to travel or unable to go because bridges and roads have been destroyed.
An estimated 400,000 Lebanese make their home south of the Litani River, 20 miles from the Israeli border, and it’s not known how many remain — but those that do risk being caught up in an Israeli ground offensive against Hezbollah.
"It is not looking good and it’s going to last for some time," Ali Sayegh, a 39-year-old furniture salesman from Tyre, said of the Israeli offensive.
"There are not many people left in Tyre, very few walk the streets and there is a shortage of fresh produce," said Sayegh, who moved to a seaside hotel after sending his wife and two daughters abroad last week.
Israel has been broadcasting radio messages into southern Lebanon and dropping leaflets, urging all residents south of the Litani to flee. Sometimes the warnings name specific villages and say residents should clear out.
"There is a desire to leave, but they are afraid to. They’re afraid of being hit by Israeli missiles and most of the roads are out anyway," said Timur Goksel, a former senior U.N. adviser in the region who now lectures on political science at the American University of Beirut.
In the border village of Naqoura, home to the headquarters of U.N. peacekeepers, only 100 people are left of a population of some 3,000. Most of those who stayed have jobs at the local U.N. mission.
Hundreds of thousands of southern Lebanese have been on the move since the fighting began July 12, mostly heading toward Beirut.
They left in thousands of cars, with white sheets fluttering from their antennas or windows and their roofs packed with luggage.
There has also been movement within the south.
Thousands of people along the border moved to Marjayoun and Qlaia — two mainly Christian cities widely thought to be safer because Israel is hitting Shiite areas. Residents there opened schools and homes to refugees.
A thousand people went to Marjayoun, a town of 2,000, said council head Fuad Hamra. Marjayoun has so far been spared bombardment, but Hamra said artillery and warplanes were hitting targets in orchards and fields 500 yards away.
Hezbollah is the dominant force in the mainly Shiite south, running clinics, schools and offering a network of social and economic services as well as an army of some 5,000-6,000 fighters.
Over the past 30 years, the region has borne the brunt of Israeli incursions, first against Palestinian guerrillas in 1978 and later against Hezbollah. Israel occupied a large chunk of the south between 1978 and 2000, when it was forced to pull out its troops in the face of mounting casualties from Hezbollah attacks.
Despite the hardships created by decades of intermittent fighting, Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, remain popular in southern Lebanon. "Oh God, oh God, please protect Nasrallah," is a popular slogan among the area’s Shiites.
In Tyre on Friday, volunteers placed the bodies of 72 victims — many of them children — in hurriedly made wooden coffins, their lids spray-painted with the names of the dead and an identifying number.
Army troops loaded the coffins three or four high onto trucks and took them to an empty lot outside their barracks, where two trenches had been dug.
The soldiers lowered the coffins into the grave as Israeli warplanes flew overhead, diving to fire missiles on targets in the nearby countryside.
Only 20 mourners looked on, a sign of the mass flight of Tyre’s residents.
In Srifa, outside Tyre, bodies still had not been removed from a neighborhood leveled in Israeli airstrikes three days earlier. The mayor, Hussein Kamaledine, said up to 30 people may have been in 15 demolished houses, but no one knows for sure because workers can’t bring equipment to clear the rubble.
The situation was similar in the border village of Aytaroun, where a Friday morning strike reduced a building to rubble, with up to 10 people believed inside — but again rescue teams could not approach amid continued artillery barrages.
Much of the downtown area of Nabatiyeh, a market town of 40,000, was devastated by two missile strikes last week. Most of the stores that escaped destruction remain closed. Homes have electricity for an average of two hours a day and long lines form outside bakeries, according to residents.
Mustapha Badreddine, who heads Nabatiyeh’s local council, told the AP by telephone that Israeli warplanes attacked downtown again Friday night, killing at least one person and wounding five.
"It is another inhumane message from an evil enemy," said Badreddine, a U.S.- and French-educated cardiologist.