Although the Assaads are Shi’ite Muslims from southern Beirut, they say they’ve always steered clear of Hezbollah and the other militias and parties that divide this weak country.
“We don’t believe in politicians and we don’t believe in war,” said 12-year-old Fatima, who speaks articulately in English for this working-class family of four. “We pray and we fast and we believe in God.”
But war and politics found the Assaad family anyway. An Israeli bomb last week hit the partially evacuated apartment building next door to them in the Mraigeh neighborhood.
“No one inside was Hezbollah, just normal people,” Fatima said. Her father, her sickly mother, and her 10-year-old brother fled their home, and now they are refugees, camped out in a school in Christian East Beirut that they share with some 370 other people.
They and 20 others sleep on a foam mattress in a 30-by-30-foot classroom. There are two toilets for 150 people. “I’m very tired and I really want to go home, but I’m so afraid,” she said.
The Assaads are among the more than half-million Lebanese who have left their homes to escape the Israeli assault, according to the United Nations. Many others are still trapped in southern Lebanon.
“A seriously large percentage of the population is in need of assistance,” said Jamie McGoldrick, a humanitarian coordinator for the UN in Lebanon. “This would strain the resources of any country. I would compare this with what happened to America after Hurricane Katrina. [But] Lebanon is a developing country having to switch to emergency mode overnight.”
Since Israeli jets began targeting individual trucks, aid groups have had difficulty hiring drivers willing to make deliveries to those most in need.
The Lebanese government is struggling even to help those who have left the hard-hit parts of southern Lebanon and southern Beirut.
“It’s very difficult to support people fleeing the war zone,” said Mohammad Safadi, Lebanon’s minister of public works. “Israel has hit over 80 percent of our bridges, small and large. They continue to bomb all the roads that connect different areas together, making sure that none can be used.”
Many of the refugees have fled from the Israeli military before. Abbas Assaad, Fatima’s father, said he was almost killed in 1984, when Israeli soldiers and Lebanese Christian militiamen raided his ancestral village in the Bekaa Valley in reprisal for a Hezbollah attack.
Abbas is a 40-year-old taxi driver who’s now out of work and out of money. His wife, Dunia, 39, has a blood disease that requires nearly constant medication. “I’m afraid if we stay here any longer she’ll just pass away,” Abbas whispered to a reporter out of earshot of his wife and children.
Fatima was the top student in her middle school, which was destroyed when Israeli warplanes bombed the jet-fuel tanks at the nearby Beirut airport, she said.
The latest word from friends is that their home is still standing, so with traditional Arab hospitality, she said, “I’ll see you a second time but in my house.”
Until then, she’ll continue to write poetry in Arabic — “war makes thinking vanish” — and take solace in the eternal. “God sees everything. He’ll punish the Israelis. Not me and not you.”