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“The children were burnt in the car right before my eyes and I couldn't help them,” a Lebanese journalist who lost four of his relatives in an Israeli air strike near the Israel-Lebanon border told The National on Monday.
Samir Ayoub was returning from Blida, an eastern border village, on his way to Ainata on Sunday when the vehicle behind him, in which his niece Huda Hijazi, her three daughters and their grandmother Samira Ayoub were travelling, was struck during a bombardment. Only his niece survived.
The deaths are the most recent Lebanese civilian casualties in the continuing border conflict between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Clashes erupted along the border a day after the war between Israel and Hamas, an ally of Hezbollah, broke out on October 7, following the Palestinian militant group's attack on Israel.
Mr Ayoub, who spoke to The National from his home in the border village of Ainata, said he heard a sudden noise but could not immediately work out what happened and assumed the other car had fallen behind.
“I saw the car on fire and heard cries,” he said. “They were coming from my niece, the sole survivor. Her three daughters were wailing as they were burning inside the car.
“My niece asked me, 'My uncle, I want my children. Pull them out of the car,'” he said, his voice breaking, tears filling his eyes.
The three girls – Reemas, 14, Talin, 12, and Layan, 10 – and their grandmother, Mr Ayoub's sister, were among 14 civilians killed on the Lebanese side in the border clashes, including Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah.
Ms Hijazi was gravely injured, but is now in stable condition in hospital, he said. Her daughters will be buried this morning.
“I thought it was a dream, something was happening, but my mind couldn't believe it. It was so painful … no one can handle this,” he said.
Mr Ayoub said the three girls returned to their village in the south, which they left for Beirut after the clashes, to retrieve books for school.
In south Lebanon, classes have been suspended due to the deteriorating security situation. Most of the villages in the region have been deserted, with 40,000 to 60,000 people displaced from towns near the border with Israel, according to local data.
Villages on the way from Beirut to Ainata resembled ghost towns on Monday, with very few people daring to venture into the streets.
“They were just children,” he said, as he showed a blackened pink bag, a burnt schoolbook with pages so scorched they crumbled at a touch, and a practice notebook.
“The enemy doesn't respect children or women,” Mr Ayoub added, his voice covered by the heavy shelling thundering from the border.
'Our children have dreams'
The three sisters were “joyful girls”, Mr Ayoub said, adding: “They always loved to be together and never wanted to be separated.”
Reemas aspired to become a doctor while Talin dreamt of being a designer and the youngest, Layan, had a passion for drawing.
“She used to draw for the children in Gaza,” he said.
“I'm calling for the public in Europe and the US to understand that we don't want war. We long for peace and for our children to have a life like anywhere else. Our children have dreams and aspirations, just like children everywhere.”
Mr Ayoub called on the international community to hold Israel accountable for “killing children” and demanded justice for the dead.
“Those who target children are not human. They call the children of Gaza animals, but they are the animals and terrorists,” he said.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the killing of the four civilians was a “heinous crime that will not go unpunished”.
“Will be under follow-up by the government, through international communications, and also by submitting an urgent complaint against the Israeli enemy to the UN Security Council,” he said.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned on Friday that “all options are open” on the Lebanese front, vowing that every action would be met with an equal and corresponding reaction, amid fears that the slightest miscalculation could lead to a regional conflagration.
“For every civilian, a civilian,” he promised in the televised speech.
Hezbollah said it would “never tolerate harm and assault on civilians” and retaliated by firing a barrage of Katyusha rockets on the town of Kiryat Shmona.
Earlier on Sunday, an Israeli army spokesman said a civilian near its northern border had been killed by an anti-tank guided missile launched from Lebanon.
“We want peace. We don't want escalation and war but we want a fair peace. We want freedom, control and sovereignty, and not to be controlled by Israel or the US,” Mr Ayoub said.
He is convinced that the attack was deliberate.
“This is an intentional crime with the aim of killing children,” he said.
Israeli military spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari said “we study and investigate all incidents that take place to know the details”. However, he did not give further information.