In Mideast, A New Fight To Recover

Returning home to find destruction, Lebanese are left to wonder why



AINATA, Lebanon -- All of the dead were neighbors, killed as they huddled together in the basement of the Fadlallah family's house in the old quarter of this south Lebanese town. The Fadlallahs' two-story home had offered false hope against Israeli shells fired from the terraced hills above, blasts that scattered concrete blocks like dice and smashed the shelter into a tomb.

Now, with fighting suspended, the rubble gave them up: at least 14 bodies, with perhaps more still buried, pulled free by neighbors' hands tearing at the stones. The dead were old men and old women, teenage girls and children as young as 3, postscripts to the roll call of victims from this summer's spasm of war.

"That's what we do here: When people get scared, they get together - 30, 40 people," said Hassan Mansour, a Miami resident who grew up in Ainata and comes back with his family every summer. "I had 30 people in my house when it was hit. And in the center of town, hundreds of people would come together to wait out the shelling."

Surrounded by tobacco and olive farms, Ainata is a middle-class Shiite Muslim town that has a population in winter that the locals estimate to be between 15,000 and 20,000. These are the people who elected a Hezbollah member to the Lebanese parliament when they got a chance after the Israeli occupation ended in 2000.

Yet Ainata also displays shades in its beliefs and politics that make it more than a simple pro-Hezbollah bastion. It changes character in summer when the town swells with thousands of its sons and daughters who have gone abroad to work in North America, Africa and across the Middle East. They are a well-educated and well-paid expatriate class who love to return to Ainata's quiet and climate.

"We say here that every house has an engineer or a doctor in it," said Mansour, who runs a variety of businesses in Florida and has built an expensive house in the hills overlooking the town for his annual summer return. "These are mostly secular people, not religious people. We are not fanatics. We are hard-working, 100 percent law-abiding, good people.

"These are the people Israel has hit badly."

It was the traditional people who elected the Hezbollah parliamentarian, he explained, because the religious organization had led the Israeli resistance during the occupation and, unlike so many Lebanese political parties, remained free of corruption. The election was also held in winter, he said, when the more cosmopolitan summer crowd was out of the country and barred from voting.

The sights and smells in this pretty town offered a glimpse yesterday into what occurred behind the lines during a month of fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.

Israeli forces pummeled Ainata with bombs and mortar shells. The barrage tore up roads and left electrical wires dangling over alleyways. Many of Ainata's houses have been flattened, and all but a few have been splattered by shrapnel.

Many insisted yesterday that there was no reason for Israel to be targeting these homes.

"I wish Hezbollah had been firing rockets from here," Mansour said. "Then at least I could be satisfied that there was some excuse for what has happened to us."

"I don't like Hezbollah, and I don't like the Israelis," Mohammed Arbid, 36, an optometrist, said as he walked through the shattered glass and plaster of the home he shared with his mother and had planned to bring his bride to after their now-postponed July 30 wedding.

"But Hezbollah fighters never entered this town," he insisted. "One day they came to the border of the village, and people said: `We don't want you here. We have children.'"

Like most other residents, Arbid fled north after a few days when there seemed to be no imminent end to the Israeli shelling. Many of the rest used a 48-hour truce early in the month to get out, leaving just a few stubborn families and several dozen fighters inside the town when the heaviest fighting came. It was not clear whether the Hezbollah fighters were always in the town, unknown to some summer residents, or arrived after most families left.

"Some people had to be forced to leave, because women and children are a burden on warriors," said a man who gave his name as Nassim and claimed to be the regional military commander of the Amal militia, which fought alongside Hezbollah in Ainata.

Yesterday, the wiry 42-year-old commander walked though the twisting alleys of the old town pointing out places where house-to-house fighting occurred. The Lebanese militias held off the Israelis using anti-tank weapons, he said, shuffling up Ainata's main street, which has been bulldozed of debris.

The Israelis had to fly F-16s over the town in close support so they could get in to take away their dead, he said, with the worst destruction delivered in the last two days before the cease-fire. That is when most of the houses in the heart of the town crumbled under the bombing. Nine militiamen died in the fighting, he said.

Just yards away, the rescue workers were shutting down their grisly excavation of the Fadlallah house. The signs of family life were mixed in the debris: a newspaper, carpets and a child's school exercise book.

And as evening closed in, a column of Israeli tanks withdrew from positions in the hills around Ainata. They drove past the blasted city, towing one of their crippled tanks with them.

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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