Across south Lebanon, wide destruction but few troops now in view

August 23, 2006


AITA AL-SHAAB, Lebanon (AP) _ First came the tanks. Then came the warplanes. Then came the bulldozers.

A monthlong Israeli assault and weeks of fierce ground combat between Israel and Hezbollah fighters have reduced this once-vibrant tobacco farming village and Hezbollah stronghold to a wasteland of rubble, scorched trees and unexploded bombs _ a snapshot of the destruction the 34-day war wrought across southern Lebanon.

In this village from which Hezbollah guerrillas launched the July 12 raid into Israel that ignited the war, there is no electricity, no running water and no talk of reconstruction. Most of Aita al-Shaab will likely have to be torn down to be rebuilt.

"This has set us back 100 years," said Hassan Mohamad Srour, a 52-year-old engineering professor sitting on a broken overstuffed chair propped on a piece of cinderblock that once sat in the wall of his home. "We are living like animals now. We eat and sleep in what is left of our homes."

Some can't even do that.

Several dozen hilltop homes were wiped away completely, razed by Israeli bulldozers, residents said. Not far from the town square, the swath where homes once stood was reduced to flattened piles of smashed furniture and toys, twisted iron girders and broken cement.

Already, newly hung yellow Hezbollah banners fly from bent iron electricity poles.

Southern Lebanon is no stranger to destruction.

The war between Israel and Hezbollah was the third time in three decades the region had been ravaged by conflict. A government reconstruction official said the devastation was likely the worst the country had seen since Lebanon descended into a civil war in 1975 and emerged 15 years later.

Roads, bridges and gas stations throughout the country were bombed this time around, but most of the destruction focused on south Beirut and Shiite Muslim towns like Aita al-Shaab in the south.

A few predominantly Christian villages suffered heavily, but others were virtually untouched. The next village east of Aita al-Shaab, for example, predominantly Christian Rmeish, escaped mostly unharmed, with some fighting but with the buildings along its main street practically unscathed. Many civilians fled to Rmeish from surrounding Shiite areas during the war.

The devastation _ cratered roads and burned buildings _ begins again in the next Muslim town, Bint Jbail, also considered a Hezbollah stronghold. Farther east along the border with Israel, the town of Maroun el-Ras is nearly deserted. Residents say that Israeli troops are occupying some homes and that tanks rumble through the streets nightly.

Overall, Israeli and Hezbollah military forces are rarely seen today throughout the south. Hezbollah guerrillas have melted into the population and hidden their weapons. Israel forces still hold some areas, but have kept mainly kept out of sight. A day's drive through south Lebanon revealed just one Israeli tank sitting alone on a Lebanese hilltop a few miles from the border.

In Aita al-Shaab, aid agencies have set up a station to distribute bottled water and canned meals. But residents have seen no help from either the government or Hezbollah.

Still, the town's estimated 12,000 inhabitants are slowly returning _ even though there is little left to come back to.

Tobacco fields have been withered or burned, and sandwich shops and hair salons obliterated. The stench of dead animals _ horses, cattle, sheep _ rises from underneath the destruction.

"Just about everyone in this village is a farmer," said Srour's brother, 67-year-old Ali Abed. "Our animals are dead now."

Outside one crumpled house, two men packed just two suitcases full of items that had survived _ clothes, a couple of tea cups, a Quran. An elderly woman sat outside and wept.

On another hill, dozens of multistory homes lay in ruins: roofs collapsed, walls cracked or missing and smashed couches and televisions inside. In many, portraits of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah still hang.

"Most of this town is beyond repair. It must be destroyed to be built again," Srour said. "How can you rebuild that?" he asked, pointing to drooping fan blades hanging from a collapsed roof and a shattered stairwell that rose to a second floor that no longer exists.

It was from Aita al-Shaab that Hezbollah guerrillas last month crossed the Israeli frontier, capturing two Israeli soldiers. The raid prompted the Israeli invasion and fighting between the two sides that ended Aug. 14.

During the conflict's first three days, the town suffered only sporadic shelling, residents said. But Israeli troops on a hill to the south issued warnings with bullhorns ordering everyone to leave.

Most did, and Aita al-Shaab was subsequently pulverized by tank fire and airstrikes. Hezbollah fighters stayed behind, engaging advancing Israeli ground forces in street-to-street battles that sprayed villas with automatic weapons-fire and rocket bursts.

The U.N. refugee agency says 1,200 of the town's 1,300 houses were either destroyed or wrecked so badly no one can live in them.

Now, dust-covered old Mercedes creep slowly through Aita al-Shaab's streets, some with windshields missing, their roofs piled with luggage. They weave around bomb craters and roads lined with smashed and burned cars, past miles of severed power lines hanging down across nearly every road.

Despite the destruction, most residents are defiant and express support for Hezbollah. Fadel Ali, 39, praised the guerrillas for defending the town. "They gave their souls to protect us," he said.

Overhead, the roar of an Israeli warplane could be heard streaking through the sky.

Copyright 2006 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

All photos Copyright 2006 By Todd Pitman. All Rights Reserved.