Real news. Real stories. Real voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Supported by
NPR

Israel-Hezbollah fighting forces people in southern Lebanon to flee violence — again

An internally displaced woman feeds her daughter at their room in a school reconverted as a temporary center for internally displaced people on Oct. 25, in Tyre, Lebanon. The International Organization for Migration reported 19,646 people had been displaced inside Lebanon since Oct. 8, the day after an assault on Israel by Hamas militants.
Manu Brabo
/
Getty Images
An internally displaced woman feeds her daughter at their room in a school reconverted as a temporary center for internally displaced people on Oct. 25, in Tyre, Lebanon. The International Organization for Migration reported 19,646 people had been displaced inside Lebanon since Oct. 8, the day after an assault on Israel by Hamas militants.

TYRE, Lebanon — In this historic port city, history repeats itself in the thud of rockets and the crying of displaced children. Since war began in Gaza last month, fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia, has flared across the border between Israel and Lebanon.

Both Israel and Lebanon have evacuated for safety tens of thousands of villagers living along that border. In Lebanon, many ended up in Tyre, 50 miles south of Beirut, where they are staying with relatives or given refuge in schools. Their escape is a reminder of the cost of war in Gaza, even far from its borders.

On a recent day at the Tyre Technical School, a weary-looking woman carried to her car two fabric-covered foam mattresses handed out by relief officials. In the past hour, almost 50 people had come for the thin mattresses and blankets.

Sponsor Message

"Every time there is a crisis, we don't know if we will return to find our homes destroyed," she says. She asks to be identified only by her familial name Um Majid, referring to her eldest child, by which many women are known in this conservative society.

At 49, she has been displaced before, but this time, she breaks into tears when asked about her children, the youngest 10 years old.

"We are a people who are oppressed and abandoned," she says, blaming the United Nations, the United States and what she called "spineless" Arab countries for again having to leave their home and the ripening olives in the fields in the village of Marwahin.

Lebanon and Hezbollah have fought all-out wars with each other since the Lebanese-based militia was created in 1982 — the year Israel invaded neighboring Lebanon, where it occupied the south for 18 years.

An Israeli tank seen overturned by the Damour highway in Lebanon, on June 17, 1982. Israel occupied southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.
Merliac / AP
/
AP
An Israeli tank seen overturned by the Damour highway in Lebanon, on June 17, 1982. Israel occupied southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.

This is a border created partly when Great Britain and France carved up the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, sowing the seeds, many Lebanese say, of the current turmoil.

Sponsor Message

Um Majid, like most of those forced to evacuate, remains adamant that the trauma of being forced from their homes does not lessen their support for people of Gaza.

"Our path is the path of resistance, whether it's the path of Lebanon or the path of Gaza. We are with Gaza, even if our homes are destroyed, and our children die," she says.

Amid Lebanon's overlapping crises, life for those along the border has been especially tough

Hussein Abdul Hussein Hussein, a spry 92-year-old, stands by as his son Amin ties a pile of mattresses to the top of the car.

The elder Hussein, whose family grows olives and tobacco, says instability is a way of life in Lebanon.

Sponsor Message
A destroyed silo is seen at the scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4, 2020.
/ AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
A destroyed silo is seen at the scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4, 2020.

Even before the start of the war in Gaza, Lebanon had been undergoing the overlapping crises of financial collapse, the effects of the COVID pandemic, the explosion of the Beirut port in 2020 and political paralysis that has left the country without a president for more than a year.

For those living along the border with Israel, life has been even harsher.

"After '48, we were displaced about 20 times," says Hussein. "Every time Israel felt like it, they would fire stuff at us and we would pick up and leave. What could we do?"

This time, on Oct. 8 — the day after Hamas-led militants attacked Israel from Gaza, killing about 1,200 Israelis and foreigners — retaliatory attacks across the Lebanese border began in earnest. In the Gaza Strip, Israel's military response has killed 11,470 Palestinians, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.

Hezbollah, which is allied with Hamas, also stepped up strikes to try to divert Israeli military resources from Gaza.

Smoke billows following Israeli artillery bombing on the outskirts of the Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab on Oct. 9.
Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Smoke billows following Israeli artillery bombing on the outskirts of the Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab on Oct. 9.

"Every time we build for the future, a crisis happens and we have to leave," says Amin Hussein, who notes from a mountaintop near their village they can see Israeli settlements across the border. He says family members are now scattered across Lebanon — anywhere they could find a place to stay.

At the technical school, administrators have emptied classrooms on the first floor to house families while their regular students continue classes a floor above.

In the school courtyard, Lebanese aid workers try to distract anxious children with stuffed toys and face painting.

One of the kids, Hassan al-Sayyed, 10, has a lion painted on his face because, he says, he is a lion.

Standing next to his mother, he says his family left home because he and his sisters were terrified by the airstrikes around their village.

Their father, Mustafa al-Sayyed, says he left behind fields of burned crops on land his family had been planting for 200 years.

"Even the soil was damaged," Sayyed says.

He says white phosphorus fired by Israel has contaminated the soil and water, making it impossible to plant winter wheat and barley this year until seasonal rains wash it away.

An internally displaced girl plays soccer in a school reconverted as a temporary center for internally displaced people on Oct. 25, in Tyre, Lebanon.
Manu Brabo / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
An internally displaced girl plays soccer in a school reconverted as a temporary center for internally displaced people on Oct. 25, in Tyre, Lebanon.

Amnesty InternationalandHuman Rights Watch say Israel has fired white phosphorus — used as a smoke screen but barred under international law in civilian areas — into Lebanon. Israel denies it.

The classroom the Sayyeds share with another family is completely bare of furniture. A little girl with a butterfly painted on her face is sitting on a foam mattress.

On the second floor, next to a classroom full of young men answering questions about car mechanics from a teacher at a blackboard, the school's chairman, Mohammed Ali Jaber, says he worries about a generation of displaced children growing up without an education.

"Learning is everything. If you leave people who are illiterate then problems will be increased more and more," says Ali Jaber, 62. "This is the atmosphere here. It's not a new thing here in Lebanon."

At an ancient port, activities continue despite explosions 10 miles away

A mile away, in the ruins of one of Tyre's ancient ports, marble pillars rise above the sparkling water of the Mediterranean Sea. A university student and her boyfriend sit on the stone wall for some rare moments of privacy at the now-deserted site.

Tyre, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was the center of a sea-trading empire when it was captured by Alexander the Great 2,300 years ago. Today, it relies on tourism for a large part of its economy.

The ancient port is just a little over 10 miles across the bay from the border with Israel. Site director Ali Bedawi says since the war began last month, they have heard daily explosions and seen smoke rising from Israeli attacks.

Despite that, just off the rocks, a fisherman casts a long pole into the bay while local snorkelers troll the clear waters.

A couple sits as fishermen are seen in their boats in the port city of Tyre, Lebanon, on Oct. 27.
Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
/
Reuters
A couple sits as fishermen are seen in their boats in the port city of Tyre, Lebanon, on Oct. 27.

One of them surfaces to show off his find. The snorkeler, who goes by his nickname Bahar, was a Lebanese militia resistance fighter during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and does not want to use his full name because of risk of Israeli reprisals.

He pours lumps of encrusted metal from a bag — what appear to be Byzantine crosses and small ancient coins. Between the metal and balls of quartz he says were used as ancient weights, out tumble spiny murex snail shells, whose mucus was used to make Tyrian purple dyeused in royal garments in Phoenician times.

For almost 40 years, since he was released from an Israeli prison in a prisoner swap, he says he has been snorkeling and finding treasures in the water.

He points out the sound of explosions in the distance and then black smoke rising above a hill across the Lebanese-Israeli border. Bahar says they can't hear the outgoing militia attacks against Israel, only the incoming Israeli strikes.

"We don't want war, we don't want problems, we want to live," he says. "But if Israel attacks us, we will defend ourselves. It is my legal right to defend my land and defend my honor."

Like others across the Arab world, Lebanese have been horrified and enraged by the images of Israeli strikes on hospitals and homes in Gaza. They were equally enraged after a Lebanese woman and her three grandchildren driving on a main road near the town of Ainata, about two miles from the border, were hit in an Israeli airstrike last week.

Israel denied it was aiming at civilian targets and said it was responding to Hezbollah strikes. Human Rights Watch described the Israeli strikeas a possible war crime.

Bahar blames other Arab countries for not doing enough to defend Palestinians.

"Not one of those damn Arab countries are helping," he says, except maybe Jordan, which has dropped medical supplies into Gaza. "Where is Egypt in all this? If Egypt spits, Israel will drown," he says, citing an old saying about the power that Egypt would have if it would only use it.

In Beirut, the war in Gaza and Lebanon's ongoing political crisis have hit residents hard

In the capital Beirut, Lebanon's diverse mix of residents — including Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Armenians, Turks and Kurds — is apparent on a street corner in the eastern suburb of Bourj Hammoud, where a makeshift shrine made of glass and metal holds religious statues and a broken plaster angel's wing. Mohammad Hassan, a 24-year-old doorman from Egypt, says he placed one of the statues of the Virgin Mary there.

"I found it standing next to the garbage, so I took it and cleaned it and put it there," says Hassan, who is Muslim.

Hassan came from Egypt to work seven years ago to send money home to his widowed mother — but now he says that Lebanon has gotten so expensive, "it is worse than Egypt." If he could raise the $5,000, he says he would join his friends who are paying smugglers to get them to Europe. He asks for his full name not to be used to be able to speak openly about leaving.

"A lot of Egyptians here have left," he says. Of the dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing, he says: "A lot go to Libya and then to Italy and other places. It's true that there are people who make it and people who die".

Supporters of Hezbollah watch the its chief Hassan Nasrallah deliver a televised address on a large screen commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs' Day, in Beirut's southern suburbs on Nov. 11.
Anwar Amro / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Hezbollah watch the its chief Hassan Nasrallah deliver a televised address on a large screen commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs' Day, in Beirut's southern suburbs on Nov. 11.

A driver wearing plastic sandals and a tattered undershirt strolls up to join the conversation.

"Our country is the most beautiful country in the world, but now all we are thinking is how can we get away from here," says Robert, voicing a sentiment common among many Lebanese. "The only problem is Hezbollah," he says. "There's no work here because of the parties getting involved in politics. The state can't handle them, the army can't handle them," says Robert, who asked that his last name not be used to allow him to speak openly about Hezbollah.

But at a cafe in a largely Shia suburb, dozens of young people sit watching a televised speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Lebanon has always been a divided country in many ways.

A young woman wearing a black chador over her clothes, gathered with her family over lunch, pulls out a photo of Nasrallah from her purse and fondly shows it to her wriggling three-month-old nephew, telling him the name of the powerful militia leader.

Palestinian flags hanging along an alley at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburb of Beirut on Nov. 7.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian flags hanging along an alley at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburb of Beirut on Nov. 7.

Many citizens say there is more than enough blame to go around for the state of the country, including corrupt politicians and militias interfering in politics. But the current political crisis, coupled with the war in Gaza, has hit hardest in the markets where many Lebanese face a daily struggle to pay for necessities.

"It's been a year, there's no state, there's no president, there's no stability," says Helene Khodor, shopping for vegetables at a corner market. "We don't know what's going to happen. Everyone is emigrating. The youth aren't staying. You put this huge sum of money to educate them and then they get out and it's worthless because there are no jobs," she says in Armenian-accented Arabic.

Khodor says she and her husband worked multiple jobs for years to send their daughter to the Beirut conservatory to study piano and then for a second degree in journalism. Now her daughter's salary as a piano teacher at Lebanon's premier music school is worth only about $100 a month — less than the cost of transportation to get to her job.

"We worked hard to get ahead," she says, "and then we just get dragged back."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.