Tyre, Lebanon – Kasem Chaalan had an inkling something bad would happen.
Chaalan, 28, was hurrying out of the headquarters of the local chapter of the Lebanese Red Cross late Sunday evening to pick up some wounded. As he rushed toward the door, he asked his colleagues lounging in the office in this southern Lebanese town to forgive him for any wrongs he may have done them.
It was the first time in 13 years of volunteering for the Red Cross that he had ever uttered such words.
“I don’t know why I said it,” he recalled Monday, hours after Israeli rockets hit his ambulance and another vehicle, wounding him and eight others.
In its effort to weaken the Islamic Hezbollah militia, prevent its rockets from raining on Israeli towns and secure the return of two captured Israeli soldiers, Israel has kept up an assault on southern Lebanon with airstrikes, artillery and a swelling ground offensive.
Across what have become some of the most perilous stretches of road in the world, Chaalan and other Red Cross volunteers venture into the combat zone. The Lebanese Red Cross is one of the few organizations in southern Lebanon working to evacuate the wounded and civilians under fire.
Late Sunday, Chaalan and two other volunteers drove their ambulance 10 miles southeast to the town of Qana, where they met another Red Cross ambulance from the village of Tebnine. It was carrying three wounded people in need of medical care in the better-equipped hospitals to the north.
Shortly after the three wounded Lebanese were lifted from one ambulance to the other, the red cross atop each converted white Toyota van became a bull’s-eye.
Chaalan and his crew loaded the three wounded into their ambulance. As he closed the vehicle’s rear door, an Israeli rocket hurtled through the roof of the ambulance.
Thrown to the ground and blinded briefly by the blast, Chaalan shouted to the crew of the second ambulance to call headquarters. The call went out: “Ambulance 777 has been targeted.” Within seconds, an Israeli missile tore through the roof of the second ambulance.
For the next 90 minutes, while requests for clearances were transmitted to Israeli authorities through Beirut and the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Swiss city of Geneva, the three-man crews of each ambulance looked after each other and the three wounded people until help arrived.