The Refugees' Road Home

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Displaced Lebanese citizens attempt to return home after a U.N.-brokered ceasefire went into effect, Monday, August 14

Mere hours after the U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect, the coastal road from Beirut through Sidon to Tyre was jam-packed with thousands of cars and tens of thousands of refugees anxious to return to their homes in the south — regardless of their condition.

Weary southerners who had packed the schools and community centers of Beirut and surrounding villages were on the move again, after 34 days of warfare, returning to villages in the south. Many wore expressions of determination, joy or simply weariness, but none wore the scared expression that had been all too common since July 12. They were happy, both to be returning home and at what they perceived as Hizballah's victory over the Israeli military. One man, Hussein Suleiman of Jawayya, a village in the south, joyfully yelled "Hizballah!" when asked who won the war. He then held up a bumper-sticker that read, "Victory from God."

In another car, the rear end so loaded it was almost dragging the ground, Yussif Ashour of Chacra, his brother and four women in the back competed for space with family artifacts, foam mattresses bound with twine and stuffed in the trunk and a very tired-looking taxi driver. But it wasn't clear what his family was returning to. "They say 80% of our village has been destroyed," Ashour said.

For many, that wasn't enough to deter them. "I miss my home," said Fatime Jrein, 50, of Homeil, outside of Sidon, who said she had spent 22 days staying with friends in Beirut. "You can't be comfortable when you're staying in another person's place."

Israel may still harbor hopes that the war would turn Lebanon's civilians against Hizballah, but all the evidence from the refugees returning home pointed to the contrary. Adorning many of the cars were brand new posters of Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, his cherubic face twice its normal size on the flyers. "A Divine Victory," they said. Refugees said they had received them from Hizballah-run schools where many of them stayed, after having received money from Hizballah's social services arm to help them rebuild in the south.

That kind of social welfare helps explain much of the support that Hizballah still commands in Lebanon, where a war sparked by its capturing of two Israeli soldiers has left more than 1,000 dead and billions of dollars in damage to Lebanese homes and infrastructure. By most accounts, the schools run by Hizballah were clean and well-prepared. Volunteers made sure hot meals and blankets were available to all who came, and when it came time to leave, they provided the refugees with pocket money.

There appeared to be more than refugees among the traffic. Three young men of fighting age in a yellow taxi heading north among the refugees claimed to have just come from the front in Nabatiyeh. Each wore short beards in the style of Hizballah fighters and all grinned when asked about the fighting. When asked about casualties, they declined to say, but only said, "God will compensate" for any losses.

"We were surprised by the intensity of the air strikes," said the driver. "But it doesn't matter. We'll learn for next time. We'll wipe the floor with them."

Earlier in the day, just before the cease-fire went into effect, Israel dropped leaflets over central and West Beirut. "Hizballah gave you many victories," they read. "Destruction, devastation, displacement and death. Are you able to pay this price again?" It was signed "The State of Israel."