Lebanese Surge Back to South
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
SRIFA, Lebanon, Aug. 14 -- Hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese families streamed homeward toward their devastated villages as soon as the shooting stopped Monday, navigating around destroyed bridges, fording the Litani River and creating monster traffic jams on bomb-pocked roads leading south along the Mediterranean.
After 33 days of warfare between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, the trip home to southern Lebanon confronted many with a trail of destruction, village after village wrecked by Israeli warplanes hunting the Hezbollah fighters who had fired rockets into Israel until the last minute before a U.N. cease-fire took hold at 8 a.m.
In the northern towns and villages of Israel, residents emerged from bomb shelters and back into streets and shops, despite military warnings that they should "remain in shelters and protected spaces and await further instructions."
"It feels great to have a breather now, after suffocating for over a month in a shelter," said Ami Suissa, 40, a resident of the border town of Kiryat Shemona, where officials estimate 1,000 rockets landed during the month of war. "But I have the feeling it's not going to last long. It's only a matter of time -- we will be attacked again." Scars of the rocket attacks were visible throughout Kiryat Shemona. Officials said all but a few thousand of the town's 24,000 residents had left during the rain of rockets.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, under growing criticism for political and military setbacks in the war, pledged to organize extensive investigations into intelligence, military and home-front preparedness. Olmert told a special session of the Israeli parliament that there were "failings and shortcomings." He added, "We will need to examine ourselves in all aspects, in all areas."
In Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, in a televised speech, declared, "On this day, we find ourselves looking at a historic and strategic victory for Lebanon, the resistance and the nation, the entire nation." Celebratory gunfire broke out and fireworks rose into the sky over Beirut, where Hezbollah staged a noisy victory parade through the center of the city.
The displaced people of southern Lebanon returned despite an Israeli warning that vehicles would be shot at. Bearded men and women with scarves covering their hair in conservative Muslim fashion sweated while squeezed into crowded cars and buses, many flying yellow and green Hezbollah flags. The bumper-to-bumper mass movement lasted all day and into the night -- 750,000 Lebanese, mostly Shiite Muslims from the south, had fled the bombing.
Mattresses were stacked on cars with clothes and children piled high in the back seats. Drivers fumed and shouted as road after road was blocked because of bomb craters and collapsed bridges. Interminable lines of cars snaked up hillsides along dusty back roads and down again toward the Litani River, where volunteers up to their knees in water helped push cars across.
Residents returned as well to the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods where Israeli warplanes bombed repeatedly during the conflict, and families fled to shelters in safer areas. Women pulled their scarves over their faces to protect themselves from the dust and stood stunned in front of the destroyed apartment buildings where they had once lived with their families.
Ali Hassan al-Khalil, a Shiite Muslim member of parliament, visited the southern suburbs along with the returning residents. "This savagery has changed the landmarks of this area," he said. "The only thing that has not changed is the will of the people to return in spite of all that has happened."
In Srifa, a hilltop town of 3,000 inhabitants three miles south of the Litani, more than a third of the buildings were rubble. Front-end loaders probed among the concrete chunks for the bodies of a dozen people still missing. Men returned to look at the debris scattered where their homes once stood. There were no women or children to be seen.
"What's here, that the Israelis should destroy it?" asked Haj Aly Dakroub, a building contractor whose home was flattened and whose pickup truck was turned into a tight bundle of tortured metal. "We don't deny that the resistance is here," he added, using the common description in Lebanon for Hezbollah's militia. "It was here, and it will be here. But in this house there were only civilians, women and children. Why did they bomb here?"