'Are my sons under the ashes?'

“Are my sons under the ashes? Only God knows,” says a veiled Oum Hassan, weeping as she rests in a public garden after fleeing Beirut’s southern suburbs where her home was turned to rubble by Israeli air strikes.

Clad in black, the widow sits on a green bench under the tall trees to seek shelter from the blazing summer sun and cries. She has been doing this for seven days now at Sanayeh gardens in central Beirut.

“I was at work at the time of the Israeli bombardments, and I went back home to find it in ashes. I was told to leave the area quickly, and for seven days now I don’t know if my sons are under the rubble or safe somewhere,” said the elderly woman.

“Now I have nothing and nobody.
Only God,” she said, raising her index finger to the sky.

Oum Hassan is one of tens of thousands of refugees in their own country who fled the south and Beirut’s southern suburbs—strongholds of the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah which triggered Israel’s massive offensive by capturing two Israeli soldiers last Wednesday.

Like Oum Hassan, many of the refugees could not find a place at schools across Beirut and neighbouring mountains which have been turned into shelters for the displaced.

Sanayeh park which usually hosts some of the capital’s hip morning joggers who run listening to music on headphones, is now full of destitute refugees peppered on the grass.

Groups of men sit on the ground to drink their morning coffee while tuning into news flashes on developments of the Israeli offensive on small radio sets.

Many children are in their underwear as their mothers have washed their clothes and hung them on branches.

The children sit on the grass, clearly tired from lack of sleep. Their feet are muddy and their clothes dusty. Their hair is uncombed and their eyes wild.

They look at the playground from a distance. The giant slides are empty and the colourful swings just sway back and forth with the wind.

“None of us can sleep, not even the children,” said Maryam Diab, gazing at her two sons, Abed (3) and Hadi (18 months).

“Abed kept waking up, crying and asking if the Israeli warplanes were up in the sky. He is still traumatised from the massive sound of the air raids that struck our neighbours’ houses in the suburbs,” she said.

An elderly woman sitting on a bench holds her lower back as she grimaces in pain.

“I slept on the bare ground, as even the grass in the park was full of people. My bones are killing me. We also can’t sleep from the overnight humidity and the bugs,” she complained.

“We cannot take this. We are human beings. We cannot be thrown to the streets like that. We have homes, we have families, we have lands,” she said.

“But the Israelis don’t care. They are bombarding us civilians blindly. The want to hit Hezbollah, but they are killing everyone around!” she shouted angrily.

Wissam Abou Sleiman, one of the young volunteers who have temporarily abandoned their day jobs to help the refugees in Sanayeh and relocate them to schools, said that “every night, we have at least 250 refugees sleeping in the park”.

“We try to relocate them to schools, but every day more people keep coming in,” he said, explaining that “many of them are not here this morning because they took advantage of the lull and went back home to the suburbs to take a shower and bring clothes.”

“We are asking everyone to help. Some people are just driving by and giving us food, diapers, milk for children and clothes. But we need a lot more,” said Abou Sleiman.

Amneh Salim, a mother of five children under the age of nine, looks up at the luxurious buildings around the park and nods.

“We have dignity, we don’t want to need people but we cannot do without. We have nowhere to go. But we would rather sleep in the park instead of ending up being crushed under the rubble by the Israelis.” - AFP

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