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Bombing of Lebanese harbor sinks fishermen's hope for the future

Wildlife, boats are destroyed

OUZAI, Lebanon -- First, the fish died.

Just days after Israeli airstrikes destroyed a power plant near the fishing harbor and sent a huge cloud of oil seeping into the sea, Yahia Hamadi began seeing the sheen of their scales on the surface of the water.

The ones that weren't dead were contaminated, the fishermen knew, and their poisoned eggs would produce no offspring next year.

It's a disaster that will last for years, fishermen here agreed when they stopped in daily to check on their boats during Israel's relentless bombing campaign in southern Beirut.

As it happened, the trouble had only begun.

On Friday, the fishermen of Ouzai trickled into the port as usual, only to find it no longer existed.

The fish auction house was gone. The boat repair shop was gone. The small cafeteria where a fisherman could get a sandwich or a cup of tea after a long day at sea was gone. Worst of all, so were their boats: a nightlong barrage by air and sea had left hundreds of boats in charred, smoking ruins.

``I saw something that is indescribable. It was a feeling I can't begin to tell you. All of a sudden, I found out I have nothing," said Hamadi, a Beirut native whose 27-foot, diesel-powered boat was reduced to shards of wood floating in the inky sea.

On Saturday, as an Israeli drone circled ominously overhead, fishermen gathered cautiously at the harbor and talked of asking the government to pay compensation for their lost boats.

But with total infrastructure damage in Lebanon now exceeding $2 billion from the 3 1/2-week Israeli campaign, few hold out hope that their small watercraft will have much chance of competing for funds.

``I'm a fisherman. I don't have any profession except the sea. We live thanks to the support of the sea. We don't have anything like Social Security, or old-age pensions, or anything like that. What are we going to do?" said Jamal Alameh, 47, who supported his wife and five sons by fishing.

Boat owners professed to be mystified about why Israel would have targeted their harbor. Its entire fleet, they said, consisted of small, family-run boats.

But the devastating barrage of bombs, missiles, and ship's guns that hit Ouzai in the early morning hours of Friday might have been targeted, in part, because of reports that two Hezbollah missiles might have been fired from the region in the early days of the fighting, crippling an Israeli warship.

Israeli airstrikes Friday also destroyed a depot for the Shi'ite Imam al-Sadr charitable organization in Ouzai that Lebanese television said was full of food packages for thousands of those displaced from their homes by the war.

On Saturday, a Hezbollah guard was patrolling the harbor, a handgun thrust into the waistband of his camouflage trousers. He refused to allow foreign visitors to approach the charred, wrecked boats, some of them still floating like ghost ships in the murky, debris-strewn water.

``There is nothing left of my boat," said Alameh, who still owes $4,000 on it.

Even worse off was 40-year-old Yussuf Assaf, who had $90,000 invested in his four small boats -- nearly all of it loans taken out from the bank. All were destroyed.

Issam Kataya, head of the fishermen's syndicate in Beirut, said losses range from $1 million to $3 million for the 240 boat owners who operate out of the port, each of whom supports his own family and perhaps those of several crew members.

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