Postcard from south Lebanon: The animals at the mercy of Israel's bombardment

Volunteers and animal lovers risk their lives to rescue livestock, strays and abandoned pets traumatised by war

Animals in Lebanon struggling amid Israeli air strikes

Animals in Lebanon struggling amid Israeli air strikes
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Animals have been caught in the crossfire of almost six months of border war in south Lebanon, leaving strays, abandoned pets and livestock struggling to survive.

More than 300 people have been killed in southern Lebanon by Israeli air strikes and shelling, and thousands more have fled north, often leaving animals behind in the war-torn border region.

Volunteers have risked their lives to rescue animals, many of which have been injured or traumatised by the conflict.

In early December, a dog hit by an Israeli air strike on the southern village of Oddaisseh was caught on video.

The injured, terrified dog lay in a destroyed car park surrounded by shattered glass, corrugated metal and rubble.

Shrapnel had lodged in her face and back. She squirmed on one forepaw, unable to stand or move her hind legs.

The dog was rescued and named Amal – Arabic for hope.

The footage of Amal struggling caught the attention of Animals Lebanon, an animal rescue NGO.

Manager Reem Sadek decided to visit her hometown of Khiam, a large village 7km from the border with Israel, to see for herself how the conflict had afflicted south Lebanon's animal life.

What she saw in the near-empty village shocked her.

It was overrun with stray animals and abandoned pets desperately looking for food.

Ms Sadek estimated there were “hundreds of cats, at least 50 to 70 dogs” in Khiam alone.

“Even the trash – they ate what they could until there was no trash left,” she told The National. “The situation is so dire that some animals have even started eating each other.”

While surveying, Ms Sadek came across a terrified one-eyed dog that was limping on three legs. The dog, who was given the name Nour, was rescued by the Animals Lebanon team and is now up for adoption.

But Ms Sadek knew other animals in Khiam needed help too.

Lifeline for animals

Khiam has been periodically attacked during the past six months of cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, but is far enough away from the border to avoid the constant bombardment of front-line villages such as Dhayra and Oddaisseh.

For the most part, strikes have hit the outskirts of Khiam – meaning many strays, fleeing bombardment from more dangerous areas, have migrated there.

Ms Sadek was put in touch with a resident named Fatima Al Sheikh, who is well-known for caring for strays at her own expense and risk.

“I’d started feeding the animals stale bread,” Ms Al Sheikh told The National. “God sent Reem at a time when it was almost the end. There was no more food.”

Meanwhile, local vet Dr Yasser Chamoun – one of only two remaining in town – was still operating in the village.

The two women and Dr Chamoun agreed on a plan.

Animals Lebanon would deliver food to Khiam, in bulk, to a distribution point at Dr Chamoun’s clinic.

Then volunteers would take the food and distribute it to animals in their neighbourhoods at considerable risk to their lives.

The next week, Animals Lebanon brought 400kg of animal food to Khiam and conducted their first rescue – Nour, the frightened three-legged dog Ms Sadek had spotted.

On the best of days, Animals Lebanon is overwhelmed by the work of rescuing animals throughout the country.

War with Israel was an unexpected addition to the workload. The organisation is dependent on donations to keep up with food shipments to the south.

“I get many phone calls from villagers telling me they’ve run out of food to distribute and we don’t have always the capacity to resupply,” Ms Sadek said.

“We’re working on getting more food. But also we need to do more neutering and spaying because it’s the season [for reproduction]. And we are trying to do a vaccine drive for strays to prevent rabies from spreading … and, of course, treating injured animals.”

'All around us were dead dogs'

As the conflict continues, Ms Sadek said she’s seen a sharp rise in the number of injured animals. Recently an air strike on a home in Khiam killed numerous dogs that had been sheltering for safety near the building.

“The house was in the middle of the village,” Ms Sadek told The National. She had gone to visit the aftermath of the strike. “All around us were dead dogs. This strike isn’t an exception … every neighbourhood has suffered strikes.”

Dr Chamoun explained why so many dogs had gathered in the town centre.

“A butcher lived there who would often bring meat scraps to the animals. They would wait for him to come home every day.”

Many of the dogs in the area were killed by the strike and the butcher was displaced.

Animal rescue patrols

Dr Chamoun had many opportunities to leave Khiam when the conflict erupted. He could have closed down his practice and opened another in Beirut. Or he could have left Lebanon altogether.

He stayed out of a sense of duty to his community. He spends his days visiting farms in Khiam and surrounding villages and caring for sick livestock.

“The people who stayed in the villages can’t be left to fend for their livestock alone,” he told The National.

“They need someone who can diagnose cows and sheep when they’re sick, who can prescribe them medicine … in the south, people’s livelihoods are tied to their livestock.”

Due to Israel’s bombardment, Dr Chamoun’s farm visits have become limited to his practice in Khiam and the surrounding villages.

Even visits to nearby villages are a risk: there is a high probability Israel could bombard the area while Dr Chamoun is driving to a farm.

On several occasions throughout the conflict, civilians have been killed while driving between villages.

When residents of south Lebanon fled, some left their pets behind. The abandoned animals have joined the army of strays that roams the ruins of desolate towns.

“Dogs are going to areas where people are still living,” Dr Chamoun explained. The strays are traumatised by Israeli air strikes and “go into hysterics when they hear or feel the shelling. It’s like they want to dig a hole in the ground and hide inside.”

“They know the sound of a plane means an explosion is coming.”

After each air raid, Dr Chamoun and the volunteers patrol the sites of the shelling.

“We go to search if there was a dog or a cat, injured or wounded or hysterical or in need of rescue,” he said.

In February, the dog of a local volunteer, Mahdi, was caught in a strike on a residential building.

Mahdi had been feeding the village cats that morning. By afternoon, a house had collapsed on his dog.

“Everyone told him that his dog was dead but then he heard a sound,” the vet said.

Mahdi pulled his dog, Boyka, out of the rubble and brought him to Dr Chamoun. The rescue was filmed and shared on social media.

Boyka’s entire body was trapped under the ceiling. In the video, Mahdi kissed the terrified dog on the head.

“Don’t worry, my love, it’s OK,” Mahdi told Boyka before pulling him, as gently as he could, by the head and shoulders. “I’m with you, I’m right here, I’ll get you out.”

“His face and body were swollen and he was terrified but there were no broken bones. Even so, it took Boyka over a week to get back to normal,” the vet said.

Dr Chamoun's work ceased to be profitable after October 7, when Hezbollah declared support for its ally Hamas in the Gaza Strip by initiating the cross-border conflict with Israel.

But he refuses to leave out of a sense of duty towards south Lebanon and its animals.

“These are innocent souls,” he said. “They don't understand what war is.”

Updated: April 06, 2024, 8:22 AM