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Sunday, July 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lebanese struggle to stay with families

McClatchy Newspapers

TYRE, Lebanon — When Israeli airstrikes tore through the lemon orchards and potato patches of Mansouri, a village near Lebanon's border with Israel, the Mdayhli family disappeared.

Manal Mdayhli, her husband and their infant daughter took cover with strangers in a neighboring village, where relief workers discovered them days later, hungry and with no word of their relatives.

On Saturday, news trickled in. One cousin had been evacuated to Germany. An aunt was camping at a school in Beirut. Another cousin, Darwish Mdayhli, had become body No. 97 in a mass grave in the southern port city of Tyre.

The whereabouts of many others are still unknown, uprooted, like tens of thousands of other Lebanese villagers, from places where their families have lived for generations. The resulting demographic shift will take months, probably years, to sort out.

In their rush to escape Israel's offensive against Hezbollah, displaced families have ended up with strangers, in schools, in parks, in rows of unmarked graves. Shiite Muslim families have sought shelter among Christians. Lebanese families have gained sanctuary in Palestinian refugee camps.

They struggle to stay together. And they go anywhere but home.

"There is a kind of glory that comes when you are buried in your own soil," said Manal Mdayhli, her veil pulled across her mouth to mask the stench as workers dumped rotting bodies into plywood coffins at a mass burial in Tyre on Saturday. "I don't know that any of us will get that honor now."

Every hour, more families join the lethal game of hopscotch as they flee their homes in search of cover from Israeli airstrikes. With each jump, the lucky ones inch farther away from the bloodshed: from Bint Jbail on the border to Rmeish a mile north to Tyre further up the coast, then to Sidon, and finally to Beirut.

That was Zahra Baydoun's escape route, and it took her family 17 days to make it. In peacetime, they drove it in four hours. Baydoun's Shiite Muslim family, unabashed supporters of Hezbollah, spent most of their journey under siege in Rmeish, a predominantly Christian village.

As her hosts prayed in front of portraits of Jesus, Baydoun intoned verses from the Quran. There was electricity for one hour a night, so the women of the families hurriedly cooked dinners with dwindling ingredients and no bread. Baydoun, 26, shared stories about her old life just outside of Bint Jbail, where she worked as a math teacher. She told her hosts she wished Hezbollah allowed female fighters, and delighted when she heard the Christian family praise "the resistance."

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For two weeks, friendships blossomed as bombs crashed down around them. Then Friday, a Red Cross convoy rescued them from Rmeish. The Shiites and the Christians parted, probably never to meet again.

"We all shared the same water as the animals and I swear it was greener than this grass," Baydoun said, sitting on the lawn of a hotel in Tyre as her weary family waited for a ride to Beirut. "We stayed together, made it out together. I miss them already."

Many families lost members along the trail north. Refugees recounted story after story of shrapnel hitting their cars. Passing drivers scooped up the survivors; dead relatives were left behind.

When they finally arrived at relief centers with working televisions, they sat glued to Lebanese channels that broadcast text messages from those separated from their families. "To Fatima from Bint Jbail, we are waiting for you," one read.

In the scramble to safety, the old or sick often didn't make it. Saturday's mass burial included an 80-year-old woman discovered in her garden and a 90-year-old neighbor pulled from the debris of her home at least eight days after she had died. With no trace of their families, they were lowered into the earth, attended by foreign news photographers and a cleric who'd never met them.

"My heart is crying, but I keep the tears inside so the people don't see it," said the Shiite cleric, Akil Zeineddine. "We may have different religions, but we have the same roots and the same blood. Even if they are buried far away from their homes, they are still in Lebanon."

The quest for a safe haven is often so hasty that it's not just homes the families leave behind. As other relief workers organized the mass interment, Ali Naim, a Lebanese doctor, planned a separate burial. With a freezer full of arms and legs with no owners, Naim said, he had to create a separate graveyard for pieces of people who are believed to be alive.

"These limbs don't match the bodies we have, so we can only hope their owners are still out there somewhere," he said. "This is not their hometown, this is not even whole people, but what else can we do?"

Kamal Atris, 45, a tobacco farmer, his wife, Randa, 40, and their four children were fleeing the village of Chahine when an Israeli strike took out the back end of their car. They all survived, all injured.

With shattered bones and nasty burns, the Atris family was turned away from a crowded hospital because their wounds weren't life-threatening. A passer-by overheard their plight and immediately offered them floor space at his home in a rundown Palestinian camp in Tyre. Two of their sons hitched rides farther north to Sidon; the rest of the family hasn't heard from them.

Randa, the mother, has a back injury that prevents her from sitting or standing, so she is confined to a bed in a dark, borrowed room. Her daughter Zeinab, 18, has a head wound; her son Nimr, 14, has a broken arm and charred flesh. But with a pile of threadbare mattresses and plates of rice from the Palestinians, they consider themselves among the most fortunate of their village.

"I'll go back to my home one day," Atris said, with little conviction. "But for now, God sent somebody to help us."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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