By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
KHIAM, Lebanon, Aug. 15 -- In military-style black shirt and pants, Abu Shaker had a gait that was a little light for someone in combat boots. He smiled through his red-tinted beard, as returning residents waved and shouted greetings. And he pointed with authority, guiding a bulldozer plowing the streets of this Shiite Muslim town, blocked by refuse from a month-long barrage of air raids and shelling.
For 34 days, Abu Shaker was a Hezbollah fighter. By 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, he had taken charge as a relief worker.
"We're going to work until we open all the streets in the city," he said, as the bulldozer thundered across a road.
He looked around at the town, nearly every house scarred. "Whatever the people need, we'll do it for them," he said.
A day after a cease-fire quieted the guns in Lebanon, Hezbollah opened another front in its struggle: rebuilding its state within a state in the poor southern suburbs of Beirut and the tattered villages of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Hundreds of activists fanned out across the country; in Khiam, at times, they outnumbered the residents. Acting on the orders of Hasan Nasrallah, the group's secretary general, they began clearing rubble, pulling bodies from collapsed homes, cataloguing damage house by house, securing truckloads of food and water, and preparing to provide tens of millions of dollars in compensation.
"We're waiting for Hezbollah to undo all this destruction," said Hussein Kalash, a fighter in Khiam for another Shiite movement, Amal. "Sayyid Hasan said he would compensate the people, so we're waiting to see his promises come true," he said, referring to Nasrallah with a religious honorific.
"We shared in the war," he added, "but now they have to pay for the peace."
More than simple reconstruction, the task before Hezbollah could decide the shape of postwar Lebanon. Nasrallah's order Monday to begin rebuilding -- without government coordination or approval -- poses one of the biggest tests for Lebanon's already weak government, which in the aftermath of the war has pledged to exercise its uncontested control all the way to the Israeli border. In just a day, the question has become: Can both the Lebanese state and Hezbollah wield authority in Lebanon?
Hezbollah activists here were respectful; they said they were only buttressing the government's role. Some residents, though, spoke in blunter terms, reflecting the popular support Hezbollah enjoys -- often more as guardian than militia.
"Sayyid Hasan will help us before our country does," said Mehdi Awada, a 25-year-old resident.
As he spoke, Um Hussein Tanaki sprang out of her damaged, four-story pink stone building. It was gutted, the furniture destroyed. "You work and work and work your whole life, and in the end, there's nothing. That's not a pity?" the 61-year-old mother of three said. Cars passed, Hezbollah's yellow banners sometimes flying from the windows, and she smiled. "This is my sacrifice."
Young men around her nodded their heads. "God protect Sayyid Hasan," she said.
In his speech Monday, Nasrallah outlined Hezbollah's reconstruction. Activists would begin work immediately to repair damaged homes and clear the rubble from the hardest-hit villages like Bint Jbeil, Aitaroun and Khiam. For families whose houses were destroyed, a number he estimated at 15,000, Hezbollah would provide money to rent another house for a year as well as buy furniture. An informed source said the group planned to spend $150 million, already provided by Iran, in coming days.
"You will not have to ask for anyone's help, you will not have to stand in lines or go anywhere," Nasrallah said. "Of course, we can't wait for the order of the state and the tools that it uses, as it could consume some time."
He said Hezbollah and the government would work in "two parallel lines."
In the Beirut suburbs, a half-dozen bulldozers removed rubble Tuesday, throwing up clouds of dust. Along one stretch were the remains of a nine-story building, in front of a newly hung banner that read: "Made in the USA." Lebanese flags were planted in other piles. Residents walked around the devastation, some taking pictures, others with new Hezbollah flags wrapped around their necks.
Among them was Leila Atwi, a 26-year-old newlywed. Her voice was matter-of-fact. Only Hezbollah would help, she said, suggesting the deep credibility Hezbollah enjoys among its Shiite Muslim constituency.
"Where is the government? Do you see anyone from the state here?" she asked. "Sayyid Hasan is our state."
"This war may not be over, but we are not afraid. The sayyid will protect us, and any new war will make us just stronger," Atwi said. "Look at us now. We're much stronger than we were a month ago."
The work began in Khiam in the morning, as Hezbollah activists raced around the town driving mopeds, motorcycles, white pickup trucks and cars, some the newest models. Sprinkled glass swept into the street sounded like wind chimes. Several roaring bulldozers plowed to the side pulverized stone, splintered cinder blocks and the detritus of daily life -- cans, bottles and plastic crates.
"We came here to see what we need to do in the town," said the 18-year-old driver, Hussein Abdullah.
To the side was Abu Shaker, the 35-year-old guerrilla turned relief worker. He fought elsewhere during the war -- he declined to say where -- and had returned by early morning to his home town. As he directed the bulldozer, he was greeted by deferential policemen, whose station was destroyed. Other residents sprang down the steps and into the street to shake his hand.
"When Sayyid Hasan promises, then we adhere to it," he said. "He promised we'd start today, so we began at 6:30 a.m."
He passed an ambulance of a Hezbollah-affiliated health organization, then a poster that declared: "Khiam 2005 Tourist City." Nearly every car that passed called out to him.
"Do you need anything?" Abu Shaker shouted. "Just your safety," the driver of one car yelled back.
He turned his head away. "When someone needs help, they come to us," he said.
Along the street he walked, Hezbollah brought in the first relief -- trucks carrying steel water containers and others, "God" written on the front, with loaves of bread wrapped in plastic and black crates of peppers, grapes, peaches, sardines and processed cheese.
A few buildings down was the office of Abu Jassim, another Hezbollah activist, dressed in khaki military-style pants and carrying a walkie-talkie that crackled with short bursts of communication. A few hours before, he said, a 10-person Hezbollah committee staffed with engineers had begun its work surveying each damaged building in the province. The crew would document the work with photographs and a prepared form. He expected the committee would finish its work within a week, "at the most." It would determine which houses would be repaired and which demolished, then work would begin immediately.
Another committee was working on water, electricity and other infrastructure, he said.
"The party has a lot of money," said another activist, 30-year-old Abu Jaafar, standing next to a white Honda motorcycle, with a knot of other men. "How did it defeat Israel? You can't get weapons without money."
He predicted the work might take as many as two or three years. "If we said sooner than that, people would laugh at us," he said.
Hezbollah has long had a reputation inside Lebanon as one of the country's most efficient organizations, sometimes outstripping the government's meager capacity in the poorer areas like southern Lebanon. Into the 1970s, some of the villagers here had no roads, hospitals or schools.
In that environment, Hezbollah distinguished itself as a social organization by its lack of corruption, ability to mobilize its people and success in fulfilling its promises. After the last Israeli campaign in 1996, Hezbollah said it repaired 5,000 Lebanese homes, rebuilt roads and provided compensation to 2,300 farmers. After the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation, its teams sprayed insecticides in 35 villages and dispatched veterinarians to check on cattle.
That record has incubated dissonant perceptions of the group: best remembered in the West for its role in the attacks on the Marine barracks and U.S. Embassy in Beirut during Lebanon's civil war, and designated a terrorist organization by the United States; often cited here for its charity and perceived role in defending the Shiite community in a country where individual rights are usually subsumed in the collective interests of Lebanon's religious sects.
"What Sayyid Hasan says, he does. Has he not done that from the first day of the war?" asked Hussein Heidar, a 29-year-old sitting with friends in a bombed-out swath of Khiam. A tire was tossed in the street, next to a sign for Nour Shoes. Beside him was Mohammed Amin, a 52-year-old resident who had returned Tuesday and was slumped in a red plastic chair along the sidewalk.
"We're going to rebuild at the fastest pace possible," he said.
"Better than before and quicker than before," Heidar added.
Both took phone calls. "Everyone in Beirut is coming back. Everyone in the Bekaa Valley is coming back," Amin cried into his phone.
Another friend approached, 55-year-old Ali Shuaib. He had just returned from the Bekaa, where his six children remained.
"The party works correctly," he said. "And the state? We don't know anything about the state."
Down the street, Abdullah Khatoun leaned against a car. Like most in the village, he seemed unfazed by the destruction around him. It had happened before, in the 1982 Israeli invasion, and Khiam was rebuilt. Besides, he said, Nasrallah promised.
He recalled Nasrallah's words as "Honey, honey, honey."
"What he sews, we'll wear."
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.