Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sidon's civilians trapped in war zone

[Originally posted at NOW]

As intense gunfights engulfed the city of Sidon Monday between partisans of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the Lebanese army – reportedly with assistance from Hezbollah-affiliated militias – the majority of civilians in and around the flashpoint Abra neighborhood remained trapped in their homes for the second consecutive day. While the army advanced on and eventually entered Assir’s heavily-fortified mosque complex in the heart of Abra, incurring at least sixteen casualties in the process, NOW spoke to a number of local residents who told of harrowing ordeals endured in the past twenty-four hours.

“This whole situation is absolutely too much for a human being to handle,” said Hiba Lateef, who spoke from her house just a couple of blocks away from Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque. “I’ve been stuck in my corridor since yesterday afternoon. The bombardment has been unbelievable, tremendously terrifying.”

“We have a food supply here but we’ve been unable to reach the kitchen at times, it’s been that bad. And on top of that, there’s no electricity. We were on [the] generator from yesterday until about 11am today, and then it ran out of fuel. So now we don’t have any electricity at all.”

Others have fared worse. Sara Hammoud was hiding in the stairwell outside her Abra apartment Sunday when she heard a deafening bang inside. “It wasn’t quite a rocket, but it was some kind of big bullet that flew into my kitchen,” she told NOW. After spending the night too afraid to enter the house again, on Monday she and her family appealed to a nearby army unit on the street to cover them as they fled by car to Jezzine, and from there to Beirut.

Escape, however, has not been possible for most of Abra’s residents, according to Mayor Walid Mshantaf, who was himself unable to leave home Sunday. “The army has managed to make escape routes in some cases,” he told NOW. “But because of the shooting, most people are trapped in their houses.”

“We’re also facing problems from snipers, and civilians being caught in between them. Some people were even taken as hostages by militiamen for protection.”

Mshantaf said he could not confirm how many civilian casualties have been incurred, referring NOW to Red Cross figures, the latest of which put the number of injured at 78.

Even those not in the mosque’s immediate vicinity faced bombardment, especially those exposed to the Haaret Saida neighborhood to the southwest.

“We’re not close to Bilal bin Rabah, we’re facing the Haara,” said Basma Khayyat. “Yet this afternoon things were extremely terrible. Our building was hit by bombs coming from Haara, I think from the [Hezbollah-affiliated] Resistance Brigades, and our water tanks were all completely destroyed. We also had snipers under our building, and the army was trying to figure out where they were, and so they were just bombing all around us,” she told NOW.

Nor did the comparative distance from the center of the fighting make escape any easier.

“We called the Red Cross and told them we have two children and asked them to take us out, and they said, ‘Just stay in your place, we can’t reach you.’ We called the army, because we have numbers for some soldiers that we know, and they told us the same. We called politicians, and other powerful people we knew, and no one was able to take us out.”

Like many people in their predicament, Khayyat’s family was only able to get away by taking a risk during a lull in the clashes.

“After we realized no one could help us, we made our own decision to leave. We packed bags and waited for it to get a little bit quieter, then went out. We saw soldiers who were shooting, and they told us to get back inside, but we didn’t listen to them and took the back roads to the mountains.”

And, while the battle calmed somewhat Monday evening after the army’s takeover of Assir’s headquarters, sporadic sniper and RPG fire continued to keep many housebound.

“Lots of people are still stuck there and are unable to get out” said Khayyat. “Some people’s children are not with them; they were doing different activities; they were in different places. Some wives cannot reach their husbands. I have a colleague who was living two buildings away from me, we were talking together on WhatsApp, and then her phone switched off. I’m sending her messages but she’s not responding.”

“I’m worried, I don’t know what’s happening. I just hope everything will be better soon.”

Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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