The tall Syrian officer commanding a checkpoint here stroked his black moustache, threw back his head and laughed.
"Oh, they're just barbecuing meat," he said, explaining why a gray pall of smoke was hanging over Zahle, about half a mile away.
Zahle, a mostly Christian town of 160,000 in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, has been under nearly constant Syrian artillery fire for the last six days. In better times a center of fine eating, it now has become the most recent and visible wound of Lebanon's seemingly interminable conflict among Christians, Moslems, leftists, rightists, Syrians, Palestinians and, on occasion, Israelis.
For the joval officer, serving with the al-Syrian Arab Deterrent Force sent to Lebanon in 1976 to halt a civil war, Zahle was a target set by his superiors in Damascus to enforce the peacekeepers' authority. He smiled repeatedly as his unit's 120mm cannons boomed at intervals from behind a nearby knoll. Lebanon's leaders, meanwhile, wrung their hands and officials from a half-dozen other countries, including the United States, expressed concern and worked for a cease-fire.
For the Lebanese Christian militiamen at whom the shells were aimed, Zahle was a home town to be saved from foreign strong-arm tactics -- their commander, Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel, made a statement in Beirut calling it "genocide."
But for most of the Zahle residents, the latest round of Lebanon's battles had another meaning.
A Zahle father, contacted by telephone from the nearby town of Chtaura, said he, his brother, their wives and seven children have been in the basement of his parents' house since last Tuesday seeking shelter from the shells crashing in.
"We have no bread or meat," he said, noting that electric power has been cut off. "We are eating rice from cans and stale biscuits. There has been no water for three days now. My children are getting restless. They want to go out in the sun, but it is impossible. Do you hear the shelling?"
When he leaves the basement, it is to "sneak up to the house like a thief for something we need," he said, adding:
"I am worried about my two sisters.They both live with their families in Zahle, but I have no word from them since Wednesday. Their phones don't work."
A cameraman who made his way to Zahle's fringe with Moslem Lebanese allies of the Syrians filmed the Moslem quarter of the town, which he said was "in ruins, with not a soul in sight."
A Zahle priest told a reporter calling him that people apparently still are trapped under debris of a six-story building that collapsed two days ago. Red Cross rescuers heard some moaning and weak voices from beneath the rubble, he said.
"A 7-year-old boy was rescued and is now undergoing an operation to have both his legs amputated," he was quoted as saying.
At the other end of the shells' flight, Syrian T54 tanks spaced at 150-foot intervals lined carefully plowed fields. Their thunder echoed regularly across the damp vineyards of the Bekaa plain.
The 15-minute drive from Chtaura, about 30 miles east of Beirut, to Syrian lines outside Zahle was deserted. The Syrian Army checkpoint at the foot of this Syrian-held hill of Hoche al Omara was manned by two soldiers, buttoned up against the cold and rain.
Their officer said a convoy of five Red Cross ambulances was allowed to enter Zahle yesterday to tend to the wounded. Officials in Beirut estimate the fighting here and in the capital has taken 130 lives and left more than 500 wounded.
For the third day running, the Lebanese Defense Ministry in Beirut issued statements about its Army coming under fire from all kinds of weapons. It named three dead soldiers today and 22 others wounded in fighting that broke out early this morning.
Reporters have seen Syrian Army positions as well as elements from the Murabitoun, a Sunni Moslem paramilitary organization, pounding Beirut's predominantly Christian eastern areas with mortars and heavy artillery. The Arab Deterrent Force late last night put out a communique saying its men were "silencing sources of fire and were not aware there were Lebanese Army soldiers in the targeted areas."
Several cease-fires have come and gone in the last five days. Prime Minister Shafiq Wazzan blamed "third parties" for inciting the fighting and urged all concerned to exercise restraint. President Elias Sarkis was reported to have told several ministers in the last two days that the country is in the "hands of the devil."