By Adil James, TMO Staff reporter
A Muslim Observer exclusive report
Hussein Khalil looks like a man who spent all night watching a ghost. His face is pale and ashen, with a few daysâ€™ growth of beard on his cheeks. His face is young, but his manners show the sincerity that usually results from a close experience of the fragility and beauty of human life. He still sees pictures of the dead people he saw only last week in the south of Lebanon. He still doesnâ€™t sleep quietly through the night, and nor do his children. When airplanes fly overhead, his 3 and a half year old son screams at him to run for shelter before the Israelis kill them.
Mr. Khalil just returned from Lebanon, crossing through a harrowing and miserable odyssey to save his wife and children. On June 6th, his wife and children had left happily for a vacation with her parents in Ainetta, the town immediately neighboring Bint Jebail. They expected to return at the end of the summer, on September 6th.
As the political situation melted down after Hezbollahâ€™s July 12th abduction of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, he kept in constant contact with his family by phone. The phone calls got worse and worse. Through some of the phone calls, he could hear distant bombs and other sounds of war. The bombardment affected his childrenâ€”they started to become annoyed, hysterical, crying frantically. His infant daughter Muna cried to him on the phone, â€œPlease come and get usâ€”why are they trying to kill us?â€ His wife told him, â€œDonâ€™t even try to come,â€ because of the fierce bombardment. Terrified of the rumored death traps waiting for fleeing refugees on the roads out of southern Lebanon, the family hunkered down in the house. The pressure affected Khalilâ€”at night, he could not sleep; in the day, he could not work; he could not drink, he could not eat.
Friday July 14th was the worst day. That day, he was talking to his wife during an artillery bombardment when he heard a loud explosion, somebody screaming, and the phone line went dead. Although he would not find out until he arrived there days later, the artillery shell had hit the house, destroying the top floor but (through apparently miraculous intervention) not injuring his family members in the house. But that Friday, he knew no such thing. Frantic, he went to the airport. He flew to Jordan; a flight delay gave him an expected wait of 13 hours, which was too much for him at that point. He found a car and traveled to Syria. Explaining his situation, he was allowed to cross the border.
A friend in Damascus prepared a car for his use and made travel plans for him, giving him contact numbers of other people who might help him in Lebanon. Everyone else in Damascus told him not to go, that Beirut was a war zone.
His heart burning for his family, Mr. Khalil continued on, driving to Beirut. He arrived in Beirut on Tuesday. Then he went to the American embassy; after waiting in line, he spoke to an embassy official, telling him that at least 10 US citizens were in a house close to Bint Jebail under heavy bombardment, including his wife and children and in-laws. The American official told him, â€œWe cannot stop the war for your family.â€ They told him to let them stay where they were, and asked Mr. Khalil for his phone number [which, not surprisingly, they never called].
Then he went to the Red Cross. They said the same thing, that â€œIt is hostile thereâ€”we are not allowed to go there, we are not permitted to go.â€ They told him to try the UN.
He went to the UN, where no one actually met with him, other than to make a generalized announcement that they were trying to obtain a cease-fire there.
Desperate to help his family, he began to contact taxi drivers. He offered some of them $10,000 to drive him to Bint Jebail. No one would take the moneyâ€”â€œitâ€™s not an issue of money,â€ they said, â€œit is impossible.â€
Exhausting all of his friendâ€™s contacts, he turned to an old friend from years ago, whose number he still had. That friend agreed to drive him to Tyre, without ever mentioning money. Their plan was to leave after fajr on Wednesday morning. That night the Israeli air force bombed the Beirut airport. After fajr they left for Tyre.
Lebanon is small, and travel is a minor act relative to what it is in Americaâ€”if a driver could drive 60mph in a straight line from the south to the north, he could travel the length of Lebanon in less than two hours. When the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in 1982, they waltzed to Beirut in four hours. Tyre is normally a 45 minute drive from Beirut (from Tyre, Khalil planned to hitchhike or walk the 25 miles to Bint Jebail). Against all the advice of those in Lebanon, they drove a vanâ€”and it is for this reason that they would be able to save so many of their relatives in Bint Jebail.
The Israelis had bombed the normal roads going south from Beirut, so only someone with knowledge of the back roads could succeed in going south to Tyre. Fortunately the driver knew the back roads through the mountains, and after four hours they began to approach Tyre. Refugees going away from Tyre tried to flag them down, telling them not to go forward.
The driver wanted to turn around, but Khalil begged him, â€œJust get me to Tyre.â€
Asking for directions through the remnants of the devastated roads of southern Lebanon, they tried dead end after dead end. Finally, two people having just come out of Tyre directed them to pass through a nearby orchard, which they did, to find their way.
That was when they found the bodies. They passed at least four cars and one van, full of people, most of whom were dead but some of whom were still alive and moving in agony in those burnt-out shells of cars, all of which still had white flags; body parts and luggage was strewn across the ground. All of the cars had been hit where the heat of the engine provided a signature for missiles to hone in onâ€”this fire was targeted by Israeli helicopters or jets, and was not the result of errant artillery. The smell of burnt human flesh still haunts Mr. Khalil. One man had tried to escape his doomed vehicle, but not in time. The door hung open, and the manâ€™s headless body still leaned out of the car when they passed.
Desperate to save his family, with no medical training and himself on a mission which would save tens of people, Mr. Khalil and his friend continued on. Warned of the danger they faced, Khalil kept his eyes glued to the sky, his hand attached to the door handle, while the driver focused on driving. At a momentâ€™s notice they were prepared to jump out of the van and run away.
He prayed continuously and sincerely, accepting that if he died on this journey at least it would be in the course of doing a good deed, as a martyr, trying to save lives and serve his family.
For some reason, as they left Tyre, the driver continued on and never asked Mr. Khalil to continue on by himself on foot.
They passed through Tibneen. Tens of people waited next to the Tibneen hospital on the road, desperate for food. If Mr. Khalil had stopped here, it would have been impossible to continue on. Many people would have crushed the car. They pushed the bread through the windows to the starving people, about 30 bags of bread, and continued on. Mr. Khalil estimates there are about 15,000 refugees in Tibneen, close to the hospital.
After journeying, they arrived at the split in the road between Bint Jebail and Aineta. To the right there is a valley, from which they saw the white streaks of Hezbollah missiles streaking south towards Israelâ€”the only evidence they ever saw of the presence of Hezbollah in Bint Jebailâ€”â€œI never even saw one man holding a Kalashnikov,â€ said Mr. Khalil.
Jet fighters banked and turned in the sky, immediately directing their fire downwards at the source of those plumes of smoke. Artillery flew into the valley, and into Ainetta, the rocket attack providing a focal point for the Israeli military. This barrage affected the travelers as wellâ€”they flew down the road past destroyed buildings. One top story of a building was blown up as they passed. They heard and saw an Israeli drone patrolling above. Smoke was everywhere, missiles were flying down, artillery was bombing everywhere.
When he saw his familyâ€™s destroyed house Mr. Khalilâ€™s heart sank to his knees. The artillery shell had blown off the top of his roof, he sprinted from the van, through the bombardment, to the house, wrenching open the door, to find his wife and children sitting on the floor, crying under the merciless Israeli bombardment. In a short time, he crowded his entire family into the van; neighbors ran to him, giving him their children to put into the van with him, not caring about themselves but only caring that he save their children. In their minivan, they stacked 32 people, mostly women and children, of several different families.
Later, Khalil learned, only 3 hours after he left the house in which his family had sheltered was splintered by an Israeli attack, killing three people who had been sheltering thereâ€”so if he had only waited a day, or had been delayed by only a few hours, his entire family would have been killed.
Thus began their escape. They careened through the streets of Ainetta and towards Tibneen, artillery pounding so close to them that one 155 mm howitzer round blew out the back window of the van. He begged his family, â€œDo not look outside the vanâ€”do not look left or right,â€ not wanting his children to see the dead people in the road. â€œAllah Allah please help us,â€ he prayed fervently. Some in the van read Qur`an, some did other zikr, begging for safety from above. And so, miraculously, 32 people crowded into a minivan did the unthinkableâ€”escaping a merciless Israeli barrage that explicitly targeted all vans and pickup trucks.
When he got to Tibneen, Mr. Khalil felt better, less pressure from the Israelis. When he got to Sida, he got out of the minivan and kissed the earth, thanking God for having brought him out safely. From Beirut, the family was evacuated via the USS Nashville to Cyprus, then by military transport to New Jersey, then via a surreal rental car ride from New Jersey home to Dearborn, Michigan.
When he returned home, he learned that the driver that saved him and his family was later blinded by an Israeli attack while making a second attempt to pass the gantlet and save more people.
Speaking of the state of Lebanon today, Khalil says it is â€œthree times worse than it was during the civil war. They are targeting the infrastructure.â€ The roads, the gas stations, the small and large factories, the electricity and phone switchboards are all catastrophically devastated. Prices for travel, he says, are astronomically inflatedâ€”it now costs about $1,000 or $1,500 to take a taxi from Beirut to Syria.
The tragedy of this past two weeks was not the first of Hussein Khalilâ€™s life. His background reflects the terrible history of Lebanon. His father, a baker, never himself involved in any fighting, was brutally murdered when Mr. Khalil was only 6 years old for the crime of being a Muslim who lived in a Christian neighborhood. Mr. Khalilâ€™s mother first brought him to the United States in 1982, when he was 12 years old, to escape the Lebanese civil war. And we hope that he and his family have finally escaped war for good.