At School in Southern Lebanon, an Aid Stop for People Fleeing Conflict

Maria Klenner for The Washington Post
Two refugee women and their children pass time in the courtyard of the Tyre Technical School in Tyre, Lebanon on Oct. 19. Several U.N. schools in South Lebanon are currently sheltering Lebanese communities that were internally displaced due to the increase in violence between Israel and Lebanon at the Southern Lebanese border.

TYRE, Lebanon – Mohammed Fattouh didn’t wait for the war to possibly reach his own backyard in southern Lebanon. The day he saw Israeli airstrikes begin to rain down on Gaza, he packed seven bags for himself and his 14-month-old daughter Jana and secured them to his motorcycle in case they needed to dash.

“I packed everything,” he said. “I packed 12 boxes of milk, diapers, some canned goods.”

When Israeli bombardment reached his friends’ house in a town nearby – in response to rockets from areas controlled by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia – he wrapped his daughter’s arms around his neck. They drove away, expecting to never see their home again.

They were among nearly 4,000 displaced people who have reached Tyre, a coastal city 12 miles north of the border with Israel and another way station for those fleeing a conflict that has widened steadily since the deadly Hamas incursion into Israel on Oct. 7.

In northern Israel and near the Gaza border, villages and farms have been emptied. In Gaza, people are on the move from Gaza City and elsewhere, fearing an expecting Israeli invasion. Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi warned that the conflict “threatens to plunge the entire region into a catastrophe,” according to a statement.

For Fattouh, word reached him that the Israeli shelling had reached the outskirts of his village, Aitroun, about 18 miles southeast of Tyre. He then heard the death announcements of three men from his village: all members of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s strongest political party with an Iranian-backed paramilitary that last waged major battles with Israel in 2006.

Thursday saw the single largest barrage of rockets launched from Lebanon into Israel. The Lebanese branch of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the vast majority of rockets so far have come from Hezbollah.

At least a dozen Hezbollah fighters have been killed by Israeli shelling, the militia group announced. Hezbollah has released videos showing snipers destroying Israeli surveillance cameras along the heavily fortified border zone. Israel has also announced several infiltration efforts from Lebanon, which it said it foiled.

The border area is typically the stage where tensions normally play out between Israel, Hezbollah and Palestinian groups it backs. Residents on both sides of the border have long been accustomed to the skirmishes. But this time, the fear level has spiked.

Wafaa, an 18-year-old from the border town of Dheira, fled to Tyre with her family after they were unnerved when the sky was ablaze on Oct. 13 with something they had never seen before. Human Rights Watch later identified the munition as containing white phosphorus, a chemical that ignites when exposed to oxygen.

White phosphorus is sometimes used by military forces to make smoke for signaling, marking targets or creating a screen, which is considered a legitimate use. But it can breach international law to use it in areas with high population density.

“They burned all the ground. The olive groves, they struck with phosphorus and it caused a fire, and they couldn’t put it out,” said Wafaa, who gave only her first name to avoid drawing attention to her family with authorities.

About 1,500 people, including Fattouh and Wafaa, were given shelter in Tyre’s Technical School. This influx is being overseen by the Crisis Management Unit, a municipal body formed after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

In 2006, Fattouh made it to Safra, a mountainous village some 90 miles north of his village. Now, he plans to go as far north as possible, as long as he can guarantee shelter for himself and his daughter.

Maria Klenner for The Washington Post
Mohammed Fattouh holds his daughter Jana in a classroom that now serves as their shelter at the Tyre Technical School.

At the school in Tyre, he found a place in the corner of one classroom, between the chalkboard and the window. He made a makeshift closet by stacking two desks atop each other, and carefully arranged his daughter’s necessities on the ledge: pink cough syrup, a plastic container of milk powder and a thermometer.

Fattouh considered staying with his married daughters or close friends. But all were either facing financial strains or looking for places to shelter themselves from the conflict.

He makes calculations. He thinks of how to make it to Beirut, and go to the Christian-dominated eastern side. If the war reached Lebanon’s capital, he explains, he would avoid the risky crossing into Syria like Lebanese did in the 2006 war.

“I’ll go to Tripoli if I can,” he said, referring to the northernmost city in Lebanon. He made sure he had packed their passports, and a court decision that shows he has custody of his daughter.

The uncertainty is the worst part, Wafaa said. “We’re worried about everything. Every day we ask someone and they say, ‘It’s going to be a while.’ What does ‘going to be a while’ mean?”

“We spend our days walking out, then walking back in,” Wafaa said. “We stare at our phones, wait for news, ask if [Israel] is striking in the south or not.”

Mortada Mhanna, head of the Tyre Crisis Management Unit, said more displaced people are on their way. Food is the biggest necessity. “We had no preparation beforehand, nor stocks,” he said.

Maria Klenner for The Washington Post
Alia sorts through donations of clothes at the Tyre Technical School.

In another classroom-turned-bedroom, Alia, from the southern Lebanese village of Beit Lif, sat surrounded by her daughters and grandchildren. They didn’t have time to pack their things, said Alia, who also gave only her first name in an attempt to protect her family’s privacy.

One of her young granddaughters had somehow nabbed a frilly dress. She arranged it on the ground and stared at it as a reminder of home.