After the soldiers left

Observations on Lebanon

Rocky clearings flash past in the headlights. "There were houses here, can you see?" local journalist Youssef Saad tells me. That clearing held about 50 houses; those were shops, and here, a petrol station. Our driver hurtles through the dusk, eager to get home to the next village, Srifa, as the muezzin calls worshippers to prayer. Compared to Srifa, he says, this destruction is nothing. "Your house survived, I hope?" "Half of it did, thank God," he says. Two months after the war ended, the industrious bulldozers of Hezbollah's Construction Jihad engineering arm have cleared the rubble and detritus of thousands of homes that Israel laid waste.

Saad's relatives are breaking their fast on a terrace overlooking a deep wooded valley where the guerrillas fought. They scoff at questions about disarming Hezbollah and deny that they "hid behind civilians" (Israel's explanation of devastation to the south). "Who is the Resistance?" says one brother. "We all are. And they are us."

Later, a youth of 20 who lost his leg tells me his story. He had stayed in the village when everyone fled and was sitting in his house when it was bombed. He will give no name or details. A woman who has drawn near shouts with pride: "He was defending his nation!"

The village of Aita al-Shaab is fiercely proud of having fought for weeks and not let the Israelis in, though it lies in utter ruin. No one ventures into the olive groves and tobacco fields, where the harvest wastes. Israel sowed more than a million cluster bomblets across the south in the last three days of the war.

Many southerners say their new neighbours - 5,200 UN border soldiers - resemble a new occupation. "Why are there so many of them and why are they so heavily armed?" asks my driver, Moussa. "They're protecting Israel from us, not the other way around." The Unifil force, bolstered from 2,000 before the conflict, can use force against "hostile activity" and intercept unauthorised weapons, but it is not mandated to disarm Hezbollah.

Rasha Faris, a student, ushers me into the broken family home in the windswept village of Maroun al-Ras, which Israeli soldiers left only a week ago. The Faris family unwillingly hosted scores of Israeli soldiers for a couple of days.

Stepping over fallen plaster and shattered furniture, the 19-year-old shows me her parents' wardrobe where a soldier shot each jacket, shirt and dress, and rows of plastic water bottles filled with brown urine. They are preserving the squalor for when the government sends someone to investigate, she says.

They seem in no hurry.

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