Tire, Lebanon (Reuters) – Car after car races north along the coastal road toward Lebanon’s capital Beirut. Each vehicle is adorned with white: white flags, white T-shirts, white sheets, white plastic bags, white rags.
Tied to aerials, clamped in the boot, hanging out of windows, draped over the roof, the flags are a desperate bid to ward off the bombs from Israeli fighters that have devastated south Lebanon, killing hundreds and traumatizing thousands.
The cars are crammed full: women and children mainly, squashed five and six at a time into the back seats of battered taxis — all fleeing the fierce fighting near the border with Israel.
A woman is standing up through the sunroof of one packed car. Her face is caked with dust and she is holding a white cloth flapping in the wind. A young boy leans out of the window of a jeep holding a long stick with a white flag tied on the end.
As they travel north the scars of Israel’s bombs along the road are a constant reminder of the real danger from above that has driven them from their homes.
The main coastal highway has been crippled by bombs. They have punctured the bridges, leaving gaping holes in the thick concrete, reinforced steel sprayed outwards from the blasts.
There are other reminders: a charred gas station, flattened buildings, rubble strewn across the road, a battered red car lost at the bottom of a huge crater. Ambulances, sirens wailing, lights flashing, speed south to collect more injured.
Also heading south is a United Nations aid convoy, 10 trucks laden with food and medical supplies for the south.
Heading southeast from Beirut through the hills, it passes still busy towns perched at the top of steep, wooded gorges.
But when it hits the coast road it passes deserted beach resorts, small towns where nearly all the stores are shut, where people are scarce. In one there were just a few old men sitting outside on plastic chairs, smoking and watching.
After crawling over a makeshift river crossing the convoy grinds to a halt on a narrow, dusty track, the only route left where the main road has been shattered.
There’s a traffic jam. The convoy is not far from the port of Tyre and the desperate exodus from the south, the never-ending columns of cars and minibuses, has overwhelmed the oncoming trucks, stopping them in their tracks.
Arguments follow, no one wants to back up. Nearly an hour passes. With the engines turned off, the boom of Israeli bombs smashing into the nearby hills puts people on edge.
Finally there is a breakthrough. Those fleeing north are given priority and they move forward. “Goodbye, goodbye,” shouts a woman, smiling as she waves to the convoy.
Edging past craters on the outskirts of Tyre, the trucks soon reach their destination.
As sacks of food are lugged into an underground car park for storage, the nagging whine of Israeli drones overhead is a reminder the city is being constantly watched from above. Â
Israeli fighters roar overhead again and again, then fire their bombs. One slams into the outer suburbs of Tyre and another plume of black smoke rises into the blue sky.
Later huge blasts shake the city center, the first time it has been hit for over a week and it’s mayhem.
An apartment block has been razed and neighbors scrabble through the rubble looking for survivors as flames lick up and acrid smoke fills the air.
Then people panic, running in all directions. They fear more bombs are on the way. But there’s nowhere safe to run to.