On the Frontlines with Hizballah

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The two Israelis jets circle high above, tiny silver specks against the blue sky, before taking turns to swoop and fire missiles into the South Lebanon village of Froun, two miles from here. The huge blasts and column of dirt and smoke that rise from Froun are watched intently by Haj Rabieh and Abu Mohammed, two veteran Hizballah fighters, who live among the bombed-out ruins of this village just south of the Litani river. An Israeli reconnaissance drone whines directly overhead and both Hizballah men know that the bombs pounding Froun could soon be directed against them if they are spotted.

Clutching their walkie-talkies, the unarmed plainclothes fighters duck back into the narrow winding alleyways, keeping to the shadows. "We have a love for martyrdom, but we also have a love for life and we don't want to die," says Abu Mohammed, a wiry, bearded elementary school teacher in normal life who first picked up a rifle for Hizballah in 1985. He and his comrade Haj Rabieh, a baseball cap-wearing schoolteacher who has fought Israel since 1982, are part of Hizballah's military network in south Lebanon and they recently spoke to TIME and a few other Western reporters who were some of the only outsiders to visit this bombed out, nearly deserted village. Neither have fought yet in the current war, but if the Israeli forces advance deeper into Lebanon, they will be waiting for them.

UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon estimate there are 800 to 1,000 Hizballah fighters at the frontline along the border, mainly operating in small groups of 15 to 20. They will be drawn from the local villages and therefore able to take advantage of their knowledge of the local terrain. The fighters will all be known to each other as well and this personal and local knowledge has been exploited by Hizballah for a simple yet effective code over their walkie-talkies.

"If I call someone and say let's meet at Bourj Anouni, no one outside the village will know what I mean," explains Haj Rabieh. "The Israelis won't know what we mean." Abu Mohammed gives another example, "If I say 'the olives are like vinegar and dough,' what does this mean?"

Hizballah has split the south into military sectors, the smallest subdivision consisting of two or three neighboring villages. Other than having noms de guerre such as Abu Mohammed, Arabic for the father of Mohammed, or Haj Rabieh, the fighters also are designated code numbers. Haj Rabieh extracts from his pocket a laminated piece of paper listing the positions and code numbers of local Hizballah men in his area. He is 103 and Abu Mohammed is 121. Haj Rabieh demonstrates by picking up his walkie-talkie and calling number "47" When "47" answers, Haj Rabieh says "God give you strength" in greeting, then "go, go, go". He taps at the handset to change the frequency, then asks "What did you have for lunch?" "Rice and potatoes," comes the tinny-sounding reply.

They both say they are happy with the way the war is proceeding and believe that Hizballah's hit-and-run tactics are succeeding against Israel's technological superiority. But they say that Hizballah's leadership has exercised some restraint. "Sayyed Hassan could have ordered a rocket strike on the petrochemical plants in Haifa, but he didn't," says Abu Mohammed, referring to Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's leader. He adds that Islam teaches them to treat people with love and as brothers. But what about the firing of rockets into towns and cities in Israel? "This is war. We have to. They are hitting us," replies Haj Rabieh.

Srifa was one of the most heavily bombed villages in south Lebanon. On the night of July 19 and again two days later, Israeli jets flattened three entire neighborhoods, around 35 houses in all. At least 35 people were still believed to be lying dead under the rubble when TIME visited the village. Only 50 to 60 people remain out of a population of around 8,000. These are the elderly or infirm whom Hizballah has grouped together into three or four houses where they are looked after. There is no electricity in the village, but a small generator provides enough power to pump water from a well. The water is sterilized by filling plastic bottles and then keeping it out in the scalding sun for a few days. There is no food coming into the village. Indeed other than a small group of Western reporters, including TIME, the only other visitors able to reach this stricken village were a team from the International Committee for the Red Cross. Still, the abandoned stores in the village have sufficient stocks of canned food to go around.

There is an end-of-world ambience to Srifa as the hot wind blows down deserted streets, stirring the branches of eucalyptus trees and banging loose sheets of metal blown off shop fronts by the force of the exploding bombs. Other than the few Hizballah men who dart between the rubble, the only other signs of life are the packs of scrawny dogs who lope down the street and a pair of thin horses standing forlornly in the shade of a gas station waiting patiently, it seems, for a master who may never return.