In Khiam, Lebanon

Hezbollah Fighters Emerge From the Rubble

Members of the Red Cross evacuate an injured fighter in the southern Lebanese town of Khiam on the first day of the cease-fire.
Members of the Red Cross evacuate an injured fighter in the southern Lebanese town of Khiam on the first day of the cease-fire. (By Ghaith Abdul-ahad -- Getty Images)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

KHIAM, Lebanon, Aug. 14 -- A little after dawn Monday, the shells crashed every few seconds. The last fell at 7:56 a.m. Then they stopped, as suddenly as they had begun 33 days before. And into the streets of this Shiite Muslim town, where electricity wires laced through rubble and a tree branch sprawled across the hood of a green BMW, the fighters emerged, bathed in a cool mountain breeze.

There was no gunfire in the air, no chants, no jubilant displays of celebration. There were, rather, the satisfied expressions of survival. Men embraced, kissing each other's cheeks, some emerging into sunlight for the first time in weeks. Cellphones, in almost everyone's hand, rang with queries of others' whereabouts, the fate of houses and the reality of a cease-fire that still seemed fragile. They smiled. "Thank God for your safety" was the refrain.

And Hussein Kalash, burly, hard and confident, offered three words that defined the war for Khiam's defenders, the Hezbollah fighters.

"We're still here," he said.

The war ended Monday -- at least for now -- in Khiam, a hilltop town perched within eyesight of the Israeli border. But the fighters began weaving the narratives even before a bulldozer threw up dust as it cleared rubble from the town's tattered streets, where hardly a building was untouched. They were myths of resistance -- of tanks repulsed across the fertile plain that frames the town; of surviving on chocolate and water for two weeks along the town's front line; of faith serving as their greatest weapon.

In an undecided war, perception becomes paramount, and the gaggles of fighters Monday, some with drawn faces, others with a look of contentment, walked like victors through a town that was gouged, cratered and pockmarked but, they said, still theirs.

"They couldn't enter," said Abu Abboud, wearing a jersey that read "Narkotic" and khaki military-style pants.

He sat on a short staircase, rubble skirting the building, its facade torn by shelling. Its red and yellow steel gates were tossed in the street like crumpled pieces of paper. A cat tentatively crawled through the wreckage, as Israeli aircraft sounded overhead. He greeted another fighter, in military-style pants and black hiking boots, black prayer beads hung around his neck.

"Either we live with dignity and strength or death is better," he said.

Conveying the Wounded

Two ambulances arrived on the outskirts of Khiam at 10:10 a.m., past charred, terraced fields. They were met by a man named Abu Heidar, dressed in khakis. He had a cigarette in one hand. In the other was his cellphone, and he pleaded for help.

"It's closed," he shouted, staring at the road. "What about the way near the house next to your friend?"

Concrete was sprayed on the ground before the ambulances, some pieces the size of glass shards, others like boulders.

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