Sounds of victory fill air in South Lebanon

Hezbollah guerrillas, supporters celebrate retreat of Israelis

May 25, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon - Suddenly they were gone. The Israeli occupation army pulled out of here yesterday after more than two decades. Their allies disappeared, too, and South Lebanon was transformed into a different place.

Gone were the sounds of mortar fire. They were replaced by blaring horns and occasional celebratory bursts from automatic rifles. Gone also were those who had fought beside, worked for or supported the Israelis. Many had fled into Israel, an uncertain number of others had been arrested, and some were believed to be in hiding.

Shops in the old village square and main streets of mostly Christian Marjayoun, Israel's local headquarters, were shuttered. The heavily fortified liaison office shared by Israel and its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, is now guarded by armed members of Hezbollah, the victorious Muslim guerrilla army.

The most visible symbols of the now shattered Israeli presence were the reinforced concrete outposts and checkpoints from which Israeli soldiers fired on guerrilla targets and controlled the movements of the local population.

Before they left, the Israelis exploded most of these to rubble. But the end came so fast, with the sudden collapse of the SLA and the compressed Israeli retreat, that some things were left behind. One of them was an ammunition depot outside Marjayoun.

Hundreds of young men descended on it yesterday, making off with boxes of live bullets and spent cannon shells.

"There's enough to arm a little army," said a bystander, Rayan Faour.

Symbol of occupation

Long lines of cars moved through the nearby town containing another symbol, the infamous al Khiam prison operated by the SLA, which allegedly tortured inmates.

The prison's 130 inmates were freed Monday after guerrillas and villagers stormed the building.

But the most vulnerable remnant was a gracefully designed memorial perched on a hill with a sweeping view of Lebanese farms below and northern Israel beyond. It was built as a tribute to the many SLA soldiers killed in their two-decade collaboration with Israel.

Now it is pockmarked with gunfire, its windows are shattered, and its light fixtures have been yanked out. Lebanese were busy uprooting the landscape and making off with trees, flowers and shrubs.

The region's roads, winding around steep hills and sinking into deep valleys, used to be ribbons of terror.

Two burnt-out cars near the border stood yesterday as evidence of a final spasm of Israeli tank fire.

Wary of ambushes and roadside bombs, Israeli officers used to travel in convoys of armored old Mercedes-Benzes that looked like typical Lebanese cars. At night, their drivers turned the lights off and used night-vision goggles.

Yesterday those routes were jammed with packed vehicles bearing Shiite Hezbollah and Amal militia flags, Hezbollah convoys surveying their new territorial prize, officials from Beirut and a row of United Nations armored personnel carriers.

Contrasting emotions

Stops along the main route through the occupation zone exposed contrasting emotions felt by Lebanese about the Israeli pullout.

At a pile of roadside rubble that once was a village, three miles from the Israeli border, a jubilant celebration was under way. A banner proclaimed in English, "Thanks to Hezbollah." Two plump Shiite Muslim women in tight headscarves ululated in merriment.

The village, called Hannin, was leveled in 1967 by the Christian militia that preceded the SLA, according to 24-year-old Ali Abdullah Nashkoush, whose parents fled with him when he was a year old.

"Today we are coming back to our village after 24 years. We're here to assure our rights to be here."

He led the way to the only edifice still standing, a mosque that in recent years has been used by local farmers as a cowshed.

"You can see the dirt of the cows," he said bitterly. "This is unacceptable."

Village of uncertainty

Around a bend in the road lies another village whose residents are in no mood to celebrate. This is Ain Ebel, the first Christian village to be "liberated" by Hezbollah forces.

Up to 200 of its 1,000 residents, people who worked with the SLA, have fled, and the rest are anxious about their fate in a region where Hezbollah holds sway.

"The future is uncertain. We don't have any Lebanese army or representative of the government here. People come for a quick meeting, they give us assurances, and then they leave," said village native Joseph Khreish, 34.

Khreish works for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, the peacekeeping mission begun in 1978, back when the fight here was between the Israelis and Palestinian fighters.

The U.N. force that was never really given the power to perform its assigned role plans to expand and move in to assure stability in the region. But doing that will require cooperation from Hezbollah.

Flush with victory, Hezbollah is settling scores, but in a less violent way for the moment than many people had feared.

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