BEIRUT, Lebanon—Haitham el Shamaa says the only way to make the perilous drive from Beirut into southern Lebanon is with a pure soul and nerves of steel.
So, one sunny morning this week, he prayed, gulped down four beers and took the wheel of his fuel tanker to deliver gas to isolated relief workers in war-ravaged towns near Lebanon's border with Israel. For the entire four-hour journey, el Shamaa's eyes darted from the narrow, crater-pocked roads in front of him to the Israeli warplanes soaring overhead. He arrived alive to a hero's welcome and was back on the road before nightfall.
"I put my heart in my hand and thought, `Well, this is for Lebanon,'" el Shamaa, 29, said Wednesday as he prepared his truck for another risky trip. "I don't do this for any money, for any government or for any group. I do this only for the people who are helping the south."
Lebanon's truck drivers have become moving targets in Israel's two-week-old battle with Hezbollah militants. A job that once entailed leisurely drives through stunning seaside and mountaintop scenery now may be the most dangerous in the country, with Israeli airstrikes targeting trucks in an effort to stop the flow of weapons and ammunition to Hezbollah. The result is that many trucks can't deliver sorely needed food and medical supplies to besieged southern villages.
The charred remains of trucks litter the back roads that drivers use now that nearly all major bridges and highways in the south have been severed by Israeli air raids. Fearing they'll be caught in a strike, Lebanese motorists either lag far behind trucks or scramble to overtake them before a bomb drops. The Lebanese government says dozens of trucks loaded with humanitarian aid are frozen at the Syrian border. Few drivers are willing to risk death to make a delivery.
"There is not a single justification for the war on trucks," said Abdel Hafiz Kayssi, the government's director of land and maritime transportation. "They even blew up one right here at the port in Beirut. It was empty. Two other drivers were killed this week in their trucks. They were empty."
The trucks most at risk are large, enclosed ones. Their contents aren't visible, and they could be carrying grenade launchers as easily as watermelons. With that in mind, truckers at a Beirut depot yanked the canvas drapes off their flatbeds Wednesday before setting off to deliver fruit. Their juicy plums and ripe bananas probably would turn to mush from exposure to the midday heat, the drivers complained, but that was better than being incinerated themselves.
Nasif Khoury, a jowly 45-year-old trucker, used to listen to love songs on long hauls. Now, his radio is tuned to news of airstrikes and blocked roads.
"Usually, my truck is covered, but now I can't because of the Israelis," Khoury complained, pointing to the naked bed of his bright blue truck. "What's next? Are they going to make me strip, too?"
Israel has promised to open a humanitarian corridor to allow supplies to flow to southern towns suffering from the blockade. A key test came Wednesday when the United Nations sent 10 trucks loaded with 90 tons of aid from the capital to the port city of Tyre. The convoy had cleared its route beforehand with Israel and made the drive without incident.
Ordinary drivers, however, can't depend on the same guarantee of safe passage. Drivers who returned Wednesday from hard-hit southern areas were greeted like soldiers coming back from the front line. Friends jerked them out of their trucks and showered them with kisses, cigarettes and plastic cups of instant coffee.
Early that morning, Hussein Karroubi, 43, secretly loaded his truck with eggplants, carrots and lemons from his village in the south. He wanted to leave for Beirut before his disapproving wife could object, but his 8-year-old son, Ali, woke up and threw a fit. The boy demanded to go along, and Karroubi relented rather than wake the whole family.
The duo bounced along the winding roads north, with Ali marveling at a factory that still smoldered after a week-old strike and at the gaping black mouths of blast craters. Karroubi said he tugged his son back into the cab when he leaned out to get a better look at the fighter jets that cut through the sky. They made it safely, but Karroubi was consumed with guilt over endangering his son.
"I told him no, but he wouldn't listen," Karroubi said wearily. "He said to me, `I want to die with you.'"
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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