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Aaitaroun, Southern Lebanon: Trying to reach isolated villages without clearance
August 1, 2006
When the mobile medical team of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) set off from Sour (Tyre) in the morning, the plan was to reach Rmaish, a town south of Bint Jbail. This Tuesday meant the last 24 hours of a suspension of air strikes declared on Sunday night.
A team composed of a surgeon, coordinator and the head of mission left to the first destination, Bint Jbail, where MSF had sent surgical supplies the day before. Finding a safe route to the town was not easy: roads were bombed earlier or too close to the ongoing artillery shelling. But the two Lebanese drivers did not show any sign of fear and they were determined to drive in the "wrong" direction.
After 40 minutes the team arrived in Tebnine, a town with a big, still functioning hospital. Tebnine is a transit and meeting point for civilians who are fleeing from many different locations and hope to find a way to reach Sour. Elderly, women and children were waiting for any transportation available in order to escape the area during the last 'no air-strike' day.
"We had to decide in few minutes. Aaitaroun is a village very close to the border and heavily bombed. No humanitarian organization had been able to get there in the preceding days," Christopher Stokes, MSF head of mission, said later. "We decided to go to treat and bring back the wounded during a lull in the shelling."
The two MSF cars left Bint Jbail for Aaitaroun. On the way, the team met vehicles filled with terrified people climbing the hill in order to abandon the area. Upon arrival, the team saw was that most of the houses were either damaged by bomb blasts or completely destroyed.
Inside Aaitaroun, people approached MSF and asked the team to collect the wounded in the village. The locals led MSF from house to house to look for them. Martial Ledecq, the MSF surgeon, and the rest of the team accompanied the villagers. They failed to find any wounded: People had already died, or managed to escape, or were out of reach, caught under debris.
At one point, three elderly women and a disabled man came out from a basement. Completely terrified, they ran to the MSF car begging to be brought out of that place. Just a few moments later around 40 more people, mainly women and elderly, appeared from devastated buildings, asking to be evacuated.
As the surgeon was checking for wounded among the group, shelling started not far away. Together with a group of journalists and with three local drivers, the MSF team was able to improvise a convoy and evacuate these people away from Aaitaroun. The way back was tough, several times the cars had problems navigating the damaged road, but they made it safely to Bint Jbail.
"It was incredible and shocking to see these old women coming out from devastated houses, screaming, crying, and desperately seeking help. We could not find any wounded but the distinctive smell of dead bodies was all around us," Ledecq recalled.
By the end of the afternoon, the MSF team returned to the relative safety of Sour.