QANA, Lebanon—Many of the bodies were as tiny as dolls, with limp little fingers and debris that clung to their curls. Many still wore the action-figure pajamas and thin nightgowns they'd been dressed in when they were laid down to sleep.
By late afternoon, at least 34 children—more than half the 56 or more people who died in a pre-dawn Israeli airstrike Sunday—had been pulled from the rubble of a house where families had gathered each night in the mistaken hope that safety from the Israeli strikes could be found in numbers.
The attack was the deadliest so far in Israel's 19-day war with Hezbollah militants. Israeli officials called the bombing a mistake, saying if they had known there were civilians in the building it would not have been hit.
But the words meant little to those who were recovering the dead.
"I have a dead father and son in the back right now, said Dawoud Kahwaji, a local Red Cross worker who leaned against his ambulance at the scene, waiting for another batch of bodies. "Go look."
Nestled among the olive groves and tobacco farms of south Lebanon's Shiite Muslim heartland, Qana's support for Hezbollah is no secret. Memorials to dead fighters hang among the storefronts. Hezbollah's yellow flags are everywhere. Sunday's bombing only bolstered that support.
"I will tell you the truth. Yes, we have resistance fighters in Qana, but, no, they weren't in that area that Israel hit," said Sanaa Faraj, a 32-year-old mother of three. "Don't they know that the more they bomb us, the more connected we become to the resistance?"
Witnesses here say the strike came at 1 a.m., followed by others at dawn. The barrage partially collapsed the house and flattened nearby buildings—though Israel has hit Qana so hard in recent days that it's difficult to distinguish old rubble from the new.
There are two main clans in Qana: the Shalhoubs and the Hashems. Most of the Shalhoubs who'd remained in town had begun spending their nights in the house, which was owned by a Hashem. It was clearly a residence, villagers said, so they thought it would be safe.
The airstrike wiped out dozens of Shalhoubs, including a generation of children.
"All the Shalhoubs are gone," Hosniya Shalhoub, 40, told a caller as she watched the broken bodies of her relatives brought to the hospital in Tyre.
She explained that she and many of her relatives hadn't fled Qana before because they didn't have the $7 it would take for a taxi to another village. Besides, she said, "We never thought this would happen."
Mahdi Shalhoub lost his mother and his 18-year-old sister. His brother-in-law was still missing in the rubble. He seemed in shock.
"I don't want to go. Where should I go? I am from here," he said, his eyes vacant. "I'll just die here. Die at home."
Rabab Yusuf, 40, and her husband, Mohamed Ali Shalhoub, 41, survived the attack. So did their 4-year-old son, Hassan. But there was no sign of their daughter, Zeinab, 6. Both children had been cradled next to their mother as they slept, Yusuf said.
Yusuf said she dug her husband from beneath rubble to free him and rescue workers later freed Hassan.
The family was separated at the hospital, where doctors tugged off Yusuf's veil to inspect a bleeding head wound. Her legs had been crushed, so they gingerly lifted her into a wheelchair and set off down a corridor. Nurses pushed a gurney in the opposite direction—on it lay Hassan, weak and bloody, but alive.
"I'm coming, my darling, I promise I'm coming soon," Yusuf called to him.
Yusuf was placed in a hospital bed next to her husband's. She shouted at nurses, demanding news of her daughter, Zeinab. A doctor brushed visitors aside and whispered two words to Yusuf: "She's gone." The father bowed his head and the mother sat silent for a moment.
"God gave her to me as a gift, and God took her away," Yusuf said quietly. "Oh, my darling Zeinab, God is greatest."
In the hospital courtyard, Red Cross workers unloaded more bodies. When the workers ran out of black body bags, they began unrolling clear plastic sheets on the ground. The limp bodies of babies and young children were placed one to a square, then wrapped up like gifts and sealed with duct tape.
A villager accompanied doctors, identifying the neighborhood children by sight. Flies buzzed around their long eyelashes.
One little boy wore pajamas emblazoned with the words "Strike Zone." Women who'd fled Qana before the strike arrived at the hospital, drawn by news of the tragedy.
"Here you go, Israel, take your terrorists," they shouted, as a second wave of dead children was unloaded from stench-filled ambulances.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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