SIDON, Lebanon—When word spread through southern border villages Saturday that Israeli troops were on their way, Leila Deeb and her husband bundled their three children into a taxi that dodged bomb craters and blackened corpses on a harrowing trip north.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other Lebanese villagers made the same journey and set up camp in overcrowded schools in Sidon, a sunny coastal city where Israeli air strikes have targeted gas stations and even an amusement park.
Deeb was reunited with her sister, Zeinab Husseini, in Sidon, and both learned their homes had been destroyed. The sisters said they'd rather lose everything than have Israeli boots cross their doorsteps.
"I feel so proud. I don't care about the destruction," said Deeb, 37. "We're the only ones defending our land."
"No problem. Let them come," her sister, Husseini, 33, chimed in. "The Israelis came before and we kicked them out. But this time, do they dare to come back?"
That's the question on the minds of many southern Lebanese families as Israel edges closer to a full-scale ground invasion of its tiny, weakened neighbor. On Saturday, Israel again sent ground troops across the border but denied it was on the verge of a major incursion. Yet its forces have dropped hundreds of leaflets in the area, warning all civilians south of the Litani River to leave immediately.
That was warning enough for many of the families who arrived Saturday at the Lebanese Kuwaiti School in Sidon. More arrive every hour, and emergency volunteers don't have the heart to turn them away, said Ibrahim Hariri, the relief coordinator.
More than half a million Lebanese, mostly Shiite Muslims from southern Hezbollah strongholds, have been displaced in the past 11 days. They've blown their savings on taxis that charge up to $1,000 to shepherd them from war-ravaged villages to safer areas close to the capital or into Syria.
While some people were seeking refuge in Sidon, others were fleeing it because it had been bombed so heavily.
On the Lebanon-Syria border, Ibrahim Hassan, 28, said he and his wife and five children jammed into the family SUV on Saturday after bombs struck near their home in Sidon for the fifth straight day. He said he drove like crazy, making the 220-mile trip in about three hours on a highway speckled with bomb fragments.
Mariam Khalaf fled to Syria with her neighbors after heavy attacks in her hometown in eastern Lebanon. Her two daughters, her brother and her sister live in Beirut, and she hasn't been able to reach them for a week because Israeli air strikes have knocked out telephone lines.
"From the TV, I know the roads have been bombarded, so they are probably trapped," Khalaf said. "I just want to hear their voices."
In Lebanon, the government estimates at least 110,000 people are packed into schools, with 100,000 more living in rented or borrowed housing. In Sidon, some families now live in parks, leaving them exposed to the destruction that comes from the sky.
"There was nowhere else to go," said Saeed Sagheer, 49, whose family set up camp Saturday in a park. "We saw the planes bombing, dead people sitting in their cars. It was getting worse and worse."
At the Lebanese Kuwaiti School, Hariri put four families to a classroom. They had running water and food, he said, but medicine was dwindling.
Children drew pictures of burning corpses, camouflaged Israeli tanks, warplanes unloading bombs, and the rubble of their homes.
"When a bomb falls, I grab them and scream and laugh loudly so they won't hear it," said Ibrahim Balhas, a father of four whose family arrived Saturday from a village 13 miles from the border.
As the bombings grew more intense and villagers panicked that a ground assault was next, Balhas decided to escape. Earlier, he'd figured flight was not necessary because Hezbollah fighters from the area had moved closer to the front line.
His father-in-law refused to abandon the family's poultry business and stayed. Then an Israeli missile smashed into the coop where they kept 12,000 chickens. The chickens died, Balhas said, and his father-in-law took shrapnel in his shoulder.
With electricity out, there was no radio or television news, but there was a sense of impending disaster. Sheep bleated and cows bellowed as warplanes zoomed overhead. Their village grew deserted and eerie. The only signs of life were cars with white flags flying from the windows, headed north.
It was time to let go of the land and think about lives.
Balhas loaded up his elderly mother, his children and his wife, Zahra. When asked what she had grabbed in the minutes before leaving her home, perhaps forever, she shrugged.
"This," she said, gesturing to her 11-month-old son, Hassan, cradled in her arms.
(McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from the Syria-Lebanon border.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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