Israeli Barrage His UN Camp in Lebanon, Killing at Least 75
Douglas Jehl/New York Times, April 19, 1996
QANA, Lebanon, April 18 - The Israeli Army fired an artillery barrage into a United Nations peacekeeping camp today, killing at least 75 Lebanese civilians and wounding more than 100. The attack, which Israel said came in response to rocket and mortar fire by guerrillas near the base, was by far the deadliest yet in the eight-day-old offensive in southern Lebanon.
The civilians were among hundreds of local people who had taken refuge in the camp, the headquarters of a Fijian infantry battalion. Most died when the shells set a recreation center and two prefabricated buildings ablaze.
Israel said the attack on the base was a grave error. It prompted worldwide outrage and a rapid intensification of diplomatic efforts to bring a halt to the conflict.
For hours after the midafternoon attack, smoke and smoldering flames continued to pour from the shattered camp, and Fijian officers who pulled the dead and wounded from the wreckage described a scene of carnage, with many dismembered bodies.
Israel had warned civilians here and across much of southern Lebanon to flee or risk being caught up in its attacks. A United Nations spokesman said Hezbollah guerrillas had launched Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds toward Israel from a site near the camp only minutes before the Israeli bombardment began.
But the spokesman, Mikhal Lindvall, said he could see no excuse for hitting the well-marked United Nations compound, where officers fired red warning flares in vain before taking shelter when the shells began to fall about 2 P.M.
"I never thought I would see a massacre like this," Mr. Lindvall said today in Tyre. "It's bad enough when it takes place in a Lebanese village, but to see it in a United Nations camp is truly a tragedy."
Fijian officers said many howitzer shells landed in or near the base over a period of about 90 minutes. That attack was among dozens of strikes that Israel launched today in its bid to suppress the guerrillas of Hezbollah, or Party of God, whose rocket attacks on northern Israel have left thousands of settlers there in a state of terror.
One Israeli air strike today in the village of Nabatiye al-Fawqa tore into an apartment building and left 11 Lebanese civilians dead, including a 4-day-old infant and 6 other children, according to the Lebanese Army.
Shelling from offshore Israeli warships at targets nearer to the coast shut down most of the remaining traffic on the all-but-deserted highway along the Mediterranean, even as ambulances screamed southward from Beirut to assist in evacuating the victims from Qana. The village of Qana sits atop rock-strewn hills about five miles east of the Tyre, Lebanon's southern port.
At the city's largest hospital, where the wounded were taken by ambulance, United Nations helicopter and private vehicles, blood spattered the entryway and emergency-room floors. Doctors who had worked through Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its offensive here in 1993 said they had never seen so much suffering.
"I saw my sister burning with her child in her arms," said Laila Atwe, a 22-year-old woman who survived the attack but said she had lost 12 family members, including her parents, grandparents and uncles.
There were various accounts of the number of civilians killed and wounded in the attack. Fijian officers said 45 Lebanese had died at the camp itself, while others died on their way to hospitals or while being treated there.
None of the Fijian peacekeepers were killed, and only four were wounded. Many were out on patrol; the remainder were in underground bunkers that they shared with some of the refugees. But officers said the bunkers were too small to allow most of the 850 civilians in the camp to take shelter.
Maj. Joseph Sabua, second in command of the 500-man battalion, said many of those killed and wounded had fled instead to the prefabricated buildings and to the recreation center, a 45-by-90-foot wooden structure built in a traditional Fijian design.
Major Sabua and other witnesses described their shock at emerging from their bunkers at about 3:30 P.M. to find the buildings ablaze and dead bodies littering the ground.
"To tell the truth, most of us now believe it is time to go home," the Fijian officer said of his battalion, which is part of the 4,500-member United Nations interim force in Lebanon that was set up in 1978 as a buffer between the two countries.
"We don't think we are of any use here after what happened today," the officer said.
Across southern Lebanon, as many as 5,000 civilians are now encamped in United Nations compounds, United Nations officers said. Scores of thousands of other Lebanese have heeded the Israeli warnings and fled the region altogether. United Nations spokesmen said that many of those who sought refuge at the base had done so because they feared that they had waited too long to leave the area safely.
Qana was all but deserted tonight, but the bright headlights of white United Nations armored vehicles illuminated the posters of proclaimed Hezbollah martyrs that are displayed along the streets. They vividly illustrate the sympathies of a population that like that in the rest of southern Lebanon is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim.
"My neighbors were all killed," said Moussa Haidar, a middle-aged man who survived the attack from inside the camp and was walking the streets in a daze.
Behind the high gates and barbed wire of the United Nations compound, Fijian troops wore expressions of shock. Many sang mournful hymns at a nightly chapel service that had assumed a very somber air.
"It was chaos," said Capt. Blake Tuitubou, the battalion's engineering officer. "Everything was haywire."
A few miles down the hill in Tyre's hospitals tonight, some of the wounded lay awake in shock, their limbs broken, bandaged or severed. Still others had suffered severe burns to their bodies or faces. Doctors said that about half of the wounded were children, some of whom lay in bed moaning softly for their parents.
Among them was Ibrahim Ismael, a 7-year-old whose arm had been fractured and who had suffered severe burns on his face, neck and ears. "He keeps asking for his mother," a nurse by his bedside said. "I told him, 'Don't worry, she's coming, she's coming.' "
The nurse later said privately that the boy, along with at least a half dozen other children in the hospital, had been orphaned in the attack.