Trying to Pick Up the Pieces in Beirut

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A Lebanese woman walks through the rubble of a destroyed apartment block as she returns to see her home in the Southern Suburbs of Beirut.

It was relatively easy for Hussein Abbas to find his belongings from what used to be the 10-story apartment building where he lived in Haret Hriek in South Beirut. A bomb had struck his building around the fourth floor, shearing the upper half clean off. Since he lived on the top floor, what remained of his home was on top of the rubble, "That's my yellow pot, and that heap used to be my stove," said the retired shopkeeper, who is now living in a school building in East Beirut. On this the first day of the cease-fire between Israel and Hizballah, he had returned to collect his possessions, though what remained barely filled the trunk of his car. "Money doesn't matter," he said. "What matters is dignity. I made a home once; I can make it again. We defeated Israel once; we can do it again."

Like Abbas, thousands of the estimated one million Lebanese displaced by the war streamed back to their homes today, despite government warnings about unexploded bombs — and fears that the cease-fire might not hold. In Beirut, that meant a sudden mass migration by refugees who had been living temporarily in the Christian eastern side of the city — which had been largely spared by the Israelis — to the heavily Shia Muslim southern suburbs, which had borne the brunt of the Israeli attack.

Streets that had been nearly empty for a month were now snarled with traffic. Some people had come to see their homes, while others were merely curious, and snapped pictures with cell-phone cameras. The still-smoldering lunar craters of what used to be residential blocks were now filled with a parade of people, scrambling over the concrete slabs and broken widow panes, as if participants in some mass funeral procession, choking on dust and that special acrid smell that comes from burnt buildings. In some areas, rescue crews were still looking for bodies.

Many expressed pure relief that the conflict appeared to be over. "All we want is peace," said Ali, a tennis coach from Chiyah who had been living with his family at the sports club where he works. His apartment building received only minor damage from a bomb that yesterday destroyed an entire block about 200 yards away. "Let the Israelis give us our country back and there will be no need for resistance." Others were merely stunned. "I used to live there, but I don't know where my building is any more," said Sulieman, a 20 year-old student, pointing to some ruins. And some were raw with anger. "Tell them that we are a thorn in the eye of Israel, an unbroken thorn!" screamed one young man. "We will plant a tree of revenge against America."

Hizballah fighters and supporters were out in force, passing out flags and posters of Hassan Nasrallah, their leader. A new billboard played on the Arabic meaning of his name, declaring "Victory from God, Nasrallah is Back." That evening, as the terrace cafes of East Beirut filled with the first decent sized crowds since the war began, the southern suburbs erupted in fireworks and celebratory gunfire. Divided in war, the city is still divided in peace.