Returning, Lebanese find shattered homes and villages

Tens of thousands of Lebanese headed south despite Israeli warnings to stay away until the Lebanese Army and the UN deployed.

Ammar Balhas has had his house destroyed by Israeli bombardments three times in the past decade. But as he gazes at the pile of rubble that was home to him, his wife and eight children, he gives a phlegmatic shrug of the shoulders.

"It's not a problem, we are used to it," he says.

While a shaky cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas continued to hold into a second day Tuesday, tens of thousands of refugees who fled the month-long war returned to inspect what it left of their homes and villages and prepare building for the future once again.

Israel dropped leaflets Tuesday warning refugees not to return to south Lebanon until the Lebanese Army and the UN deployed. Israeli soldiers shot five Hizbullah gunmen Tuesday, even as Israeli troops began to leave parts of south Lebanon Tuesday. Israel's top general said that his troops could complete their withdrawal in seven to 10 days.

South Lebanon has been a theater of conflict for more than three decades, a grim cycle of death and destruction, reconstruction and renewal. But the southerners are a stoic people, tough as dried leather. They eke out frugal livings farming the stony soil for tobacco and olives, and drawing deeply upon their Shiite faith and its acceptance of suffering to endure and overcome the bouts of violence that plague south Lebanon.

Few places in the south were as badly damaged as this straggly village tucked into the hills southeast of the port of Tyre.

More than 80 percent of the village has been destroyed or heavily damaged, local residents say. House after house lies in rubble, floors pancaked on top of each other, some having simply vanished into huge craters left by the guided bombs dropped by Israeli jets. Along one section of the main road weaving through the village, every building had gone, reduced to piles of gray rubble and twisted steel reinforcing rods.

Most of the villagers fled north in the early stages of the war.

Ali Bakri, a local businessman who stayed, says that about 10 elderly people who were unable to leave had been killed when Israeli bombs flattened their homes.

"The village is very badly damaged. It's like a tsunami, or a second Hiroshima," he says.

Bunches of brown tobacco leaves threaded onto wires to dry when the war began have turned gray from the thick layer of dust that carpets the village.

"Our tobacco has gone, everything is gone. We have lost our cars, our houses," wails Fatmeh Azzam, raising her hands to her face. The elderly woman's home was badly damaged – walls cracked from the blasts of exploding bombs, windows shattered, shrapnel holes in the walls – but she was lucky. The surrounding houses belonging to members of her family were gutted at best, at worst completely destroyed.

Returnees greeted and hugged each other as traffic wound along roads that had been hastily cleared of rubble and debris by bulldozers. Some battered, dust-caked Mercedes had bouncing piles of foam mattresses lashed to the roof, makeshift beds for the returning family crammed inside the vehicle.

Ammar Balhas returned to his home with his family Tuesday, having spent the war sheltered in a school in Sidon midway between Tyre and Beirut. His home was destroyed by Israeli shelling in 1996 and 1999 when the front-line of Israel's occupation zone in south Lebanon began just a mile to the south.

"God will help us and we will stand together," he says.

But he can also expect some assistance from Hizbullah after the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, pledged in a televised address on Monday night to pay for the cost of rebuilding those homes destroyed in the war.

"He is our shelter," Mr Balhas says.

There was little sense of gloom and despondency in these small impoverished villages, rather, a mood of determination to begin as quickly as possible the daunting effort of rebuilding their homes and former ways of life.

"We will work together to rebuild and we are beginning already," says Sheikh Alieddine Sharara, the imam of Zibqine, a village that, like Siddiqine, was devastated by the Israeli onslaught. He says that five houses were blown up in an airstrike just five minutes before the cease-fire went into effect at 8 a.m. Monday.

But as the bulldozers move into clear away the debris, the grim legacy of Israel's war against Hizbullah is revealed. In Bint Jbail, the largest Shiite town in the southern border district, Lebanese Red Cross workers, wearing surgical masks to ward off the smell, wrap the bodies of a man and woman in plastic bags before tying them to a stretcher and lifting them into the back of their ambulance.

They were killed 16 days earlier while escaping on foot through Bint Jbail from the hilltop village of Maroun er Ras to the south, where Israeli troops were battling a stubborn Hizbullah defense.

"When they open up more roads, they will find many more bodies," says Ahmad Bazzi.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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