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Returning to Their Devastated Homes, the People of Lebanon Claim Victory
Published on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 by the Guardian / UK
Returning to Their Devastated Homes, the People of Lebanon Claim Victory
by Declan Walsh
 
The war started in Aitta Shaab, where Hizbullah fighters stole across the border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers one month ago. When it ended at 8am yesterday morning - and not a minute earlier - the tiny town bore fearful testament to Israel's wrath.

The town centre was utterly destroyed, reduced to a line of disembowelled buildings cloaked in ashen dust. Gigantic craters pitted the roads. Scorched vehicles slouched in the gutters.


A displaced Lebanese boy flashes victory-V sign next to a Lebanese flag, as he sits with his family, on their way to back home at the Hezbollah strongholds of southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 14, 2006. Hours after a U.N.-brokered ceasefire took hold Monday, thousands of refugees returned to their homes.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Yet for the townspeople who slowly trickled home, many to decimated homes, the bombs had failed to obliterate one thing - a defiant sense of victory.

"I feel joy," said Ibrahim Awada, whose grocery store had been flattened, house destroyed and three neighbours killed. "These buildings can be rebuilt. All I care is that Hizbullah defeats Israel."

Police officer Sameeh Srur embraced Hizbullah fighters, kissing them on both cheeks. "Yes, it looks like Leningrad," he said, referring to the Soviet city that braved the brutal German siege during the second world war. "But we brought the Israelis to their knees here. This shows that Hizbullah is the strongest army in the Middle East."

After 34 days of war Lebanon emerged from the rubble yesterday as a fragile UN-brokered ceasefire slowly took root. At first few people appeared, perhaps reluctant to believe the truce would really hold.

Reporters leaving the besieged southern city of Tyre passed through largely empty streets, weaving between bomb craters designed to cut off the roads. Stopping to clear the rubble, we passed deserted orchards, burned-out petrol stations and long lines of shuttered buildings.

Closer to the border, in Bint Jbeil, one of the first signs of life was a group of Hizbullah fighters, limping down the road aboard a jeep with blasted windscreens and running on a flat tyre.

The triumphant fighters, some injured, were pumped with adrenaline from fighting that ended only hours earlier. "I fired my last shot at 8 o'clock," said a man going by the nom de guerre of Hajj. "Israel is strong but by our Islamic resistance, we are victorious."

The group had come from Aitta Shaab, he said. Asked how they had survived the blitz of Israeli artillery, helicopter gunships and F-16 warplanes - a resistance now assured a proud place in local legend - he replied: "God was with us."

But Bint Jbeil was not entirely deserted. At the bombed-out hospital, nurses hoisted Hassan Shrala, an 80-year-old with shrapnel wounds, into a jeep for emergency treatment. His wounds were gangrenous and he had started to hallucinate, said Hussain Yousef, 24, one of three nurses who endured the fighting to protect Mr Shrala.

The staff survived on tinned food and cowered from the bombs inside a tiny room at night. "We couldn't leave them," he explained simply.

Outside, Mr Shrala's wife, Fatima Debaja, a hunched 75-year-old, hobbled out of the hospital on two sticks. "God bless you all, God bless you," she said repeatedly, a look of great distress in her eyes. "Please take me to Tyre."

Down the road lay Aitta Shaab, the town of tobacco farmers and militants that lies at the heart of the Middle East's newest war. On July 12 Hizbullah fighters stole across the border less than a mile away and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed six. The conflict that that act provoked has claimed more than 1,000 Lebanese and 144 Israeli lives.

Across southern Lebanon the trickle had swelled to a flood by mid-afternoon. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said war refugees were leaving Beirut at a rate of 6,000 an hour, despite Israeli threats that their vehicles could still be considered a military target.

Among the southern Shias that make up Hizbullah's support base, the conflict's terrible logic is very much alive, and the circle of blame that nourishes their grievances still burns strong.

"We are prepared to sleep in the streets for Hassan Nasrullah," said Hanan Nasr, a veiled 18-year-old woman. But wasn't the conflict the fault of Hizbullah? "I am sure that before the soldiers were kidnapped, Israel did something else," she said.

Moments later, at 2pm, the speaker on a minaret above the bullet-pocked town mosque crackled into action for the first time in 15 days, blaring a verse from the Qur'an.

And a mile away, across a tobacco field and wide-open countryside, stood an Israeli border checkpost. Almost undoubtedly the IDF troops were watching and listening.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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