The cups of cold cola were just beginning to warm in the early evening heat, as the sun sank behind the idyllic village of Rashaf, until recently occupied by Israeli forces.
The calm seemed permanent.
Then came the first blast of a nearby gun, and then another. My Lebanese hosts didn't bat an eye. But when their visitor shot a wary glance from the bullet-riddled balcony toward a patch of trees, they began to laugh. It wasn't because they were used to gunfire. It was because, to them, this was the sound of normal life returning to their village.
"That's my brother - he's hunting birds," says Samir Attar, a shepherd with a sunburned face.
Much has been transformed here since Israel withdrew in late May after 22 years. Four months ago, when the Monitor first interviewed Mr. Attar, he was one of the last of the thousands of Lebanese to be kicked out by Israel for refusing to collaborate.
In Rashaf, which had become a virtual senior-citizens' enclave, he was known as the "last young man," as the population pared down from 4,000 to just 30.
Today it bustles again. And despite the enormous challenge of rebuilding village after village - as well as a social fabric torn by decades of war - a renaissance is under way. On July 27, envoys from wealthy nations plan to meet in Beirut to prepare an aid package.
The day Rashaf was "liberated," Attar says, was the day he brought his entire family back to their house. "I am very happy, because I am a free man," he says, as his brother-in-law climbs up concrete steps with a brace of birds for dinner. "Now I can feel the dignity, I can feel the freedom."
Also returning to the village was his brother Abdallah Attar. He had sneaked out of the village eight years ago despite orders from pro-Israel militiamen. His wife had been allowed out to give birth, and he wanted to be with her. They never returned - until May.
"Nobody here went with the [pro-Israel] militia or helped Israel," says Abdallah's wife Ahlia Azimi. During that time, Rashaf and scores of other villages went through a period of neglect and isolation. Across southern Lebanon today, one hears the sound of scraping sand and gravel, and of the butt end of trowels tapping in new breeze-block houses. Trucks packed with construction materials jam the roads, and streets are being dug up - just as the main drag into Rashaf is today - to accommodate new water mains.
As a measure of solidarity, last month the Lebanese parliament held an extraordinary session, less than two miles from Israel's border, and pledged $46.3 million for a rebuilding plan. Islamic Hizbullah guerrillas, whose battlefield prowess forced the Israelis to leave, have moved even faster, with their humanitarian arm sending everything from water trucks, doctors, and builders within hours of the Israeli pullout.
"People going back face a lot of problems, and they need more than Hizbullah can give. They need international help," says Mohamed Rad, a Hizbullah member of parliament in Lebanon. "One-third of the villagers don't have houses. People say that Hizbullah has given martyrs to us, so they will not give less now."
At the same time, a sense of novelty is apparent. Lebanese flock in by the thousands to see their home villages, and drive right up to the border fence with Israel. Sometimes they throw stones in a final act of defiance, but more often to gaze at what they see as the "enemy" in Jewish settlements in the valleys below.
Former inmates of Khiam prison - once notorious for allegations of torture - take the curious on tours of the barbed-wire-encrusted fortress. At the front gate, an old man sells black Hizbullah baseball hats.
But it is in the plans of each family that returns that one can see the hopeful difference a few months can make. In February, for instance, Attar had to sell his 400 goats to support the move forced on him. Coming back wasn't easy, with seven children. "I couldn't believe it until I saw my village again," he says. "I fell to my knees and cried."
Today Attar has five cows, and walks them on the approach road, near where he plans to build a new house. His dreams are manifest in a pile of sand and blocks, just off the road, where he has set up a tent. "The village is now full," he says, with a disbelieving grin. "People are beginning to rebuild."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society