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TOLL ON REFUGEES

Abandoned baby in a fight for his life

TYRE, Lebanon -- Only two hours old, Raad struggled for life in an ambulance that sped along a treacherous, bombed-out stretch of road out of the heart of southern Lebanon's war zone.

His black hair was matted with blood from his birth, and his frail body was swaddled in a blanket when ambulance drivers brought the barely 3-pound infant from the village of Tibnin to the Najem hospital in the port city of Tyre.

He was born two months early, delivered by Caesarean section at a smaller hospital in Tibnin after his mother fled her village. Tibnin, some 12 miles from Tyre, has been thronged by thousands of refugees from nearby villages, escaping heavy Israeli bombardment.

Tyre also has been repeatedly hit by Israeli strikes. But the hospital has far better facilities to care for a premature newborn.

For now -- two weeks after his birth -- Raad is effectively abandoned. He was rushed out of Tibnin, but his mother stayed, either too weak or too frightened to come along, hospital worker Ali Jawad Najem said yesterday.

She called the Tyre hospital once to ask about her son, but hung up when a nurse asked when she would come for him. Later, a man who said he was Raad's uncle came to the hospital to check on him, but refused to take the infant.

``I don't know why she doesn't want her baby or if she will come after the war to take him. We haven't heard anything since that one telephone call," nurse Nada Daeg said.

The mother -- identified as Reema Jawad Hameer on a form filled out by the Lebanese Red Cross -- might be afraid to risk traveling or may believe the baby is safer and better cared for in Tyre, the hospital staff said.

Without a relative to claim him, Raad now has five mothers and six fathers, Daeg said of the nurses and doctors.

``We love him very much," Daeg said. ``He is our family now."

Raad's face was so small it seemed lost in the palm of Daeg's hand as she held him. His tiny feet were blue. His fingers clutched Daeg's fleshy finger as the people talked about his short life.

He was born July 23, 11 days after the start of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, and his life was a struggle from the beginning. His lungs were weak and his breathing labored when ambulance drivers scooped him up and brought him to Tyre, said Najem.

Then he developed jaundice, common among premature babies, and his tiny body took on a yellow tinge, the nurse said.

But Raad is gaining strength, Daeg said.

``It's slow, and he looks very small and weak, but he is eating fine and everything is OK," the nurse said.

Many of the hospital workers have lived at the hospital since the began, unable to leave because the roads are cut.

With no mother to name him, one of the hospital doctors, Nidal Mahboob, picked a name -- one that indicates the depth of support for the Hezbollah guerrillas here in southern Lebanon.

In Arabic, Raad means ``thunder" -- and Mahboob said the name represents the sound of Hezbollah rockets being fired into Israel.

Held gently in Daeg's arms, Raad was silent . ``We want him to be like the Hezbollah rockets when he grows into a young man -- a fighter against Israel," she said.

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