Middle East

Lebanese Refugees Return on News of Peace

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As a cease-fire goes into effect along the Israel - Lebanon border, thousands of Lebanese refugees are clogging battered roadways, trying to get back to their homes in the south. NPR's Ivan Watson has been traveling with many of those refugees, and discusses his observations with host Alex Chadwick.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Joining us now, NPR's Ivan Watson. He's in southern Lebanon, traveling with refugees who are trying to get back to the villages where they live.

Ivan, what are you seeing there? Where are you exactly?

IVAN WATSON reporting:

I'm in the southern coastal city of Tyre. I did spend some time on highways clogged with refugees trying to return to their homes, places that they've had to evacuate over the course of the last month due to the intensity of the fighting and the air strikes. And some of them had their cars loaded up with family members - six, seven people in a vehicle with their foam mattresses piled on top of them.

Even saw a man holding a bird cage with live birds inside of them on his lap as they tried to weave their way around the bombed-out bridges that now make up what's left of the highway running north and south down the coast of Lebanon.

CHADWICK: I'm a little surprised that people are rushing back this quickly. Maybe they - maybe they really think that this cease-fire is going to hold.

WATSON: Most of them don't, I think, think that it's going to hold for very long. Many of them say, Well, you know, you can't trust Israel. You know, we're going back for now, but the fighting will probably continue.

And I do have to say that as you move further south, there are fewer and fewer of these people coming home. I think they're going to some of the communities north of the Litani river, which has been kind of a dividing line in this conflict zone that Israel has pushed its troops towards and has declared a curfew south of that river.

So I think a lot of the traffic was heading to towns and communities north of the Litani river, though just now I drove in and I saw people driving around on motorcycles, driving in cars, waving Hezbollah flags out the window, painting this as a victory for Hezbollah.

CHADWICK: That's what they're saying there, huh?

WATSON: Well, it's interesting. At one of the back-ups on the highway - it took nearly an hour to get through, and there were hundreds of cars there - there were Hezbollah supporters handing out pink leaflets that said, Congratulations For This Victory. We've fought the enemy off. This is a big victory and congratulations to all the people who suffered wounds and have been forced out of their homes and all the people who gave up martyrs for this battle.

That leaflet went on to warn people to stay away from unexploded munitions, and we have seen quite a bit of those scattered around the conflict zone. The parking lot outside a hospital literally littered with these small, very deadly cylinders that had not exploded yet.

CHADWICK: Isn't there still a fairly significant Israeli troop presence in southern Lebanon?

For instance, there was a town where they dropped paratroopers on Friday. Are they still there?

WATSON: I believe they are, because I visited the village right next to it and much of that village had been damaged. We arrived there and we were surprised to find - in a village called Calawai(ph), Alex - the Mukhtar, or the mayor of the village, sitting in the garden of his house, which had taken a direct hit from an Israeli artillery strike, and he said in the neighboring village of Gundaria(ph) that Israeli troops were still there, ever since they were parachuted in Friday night. And he said there were tanks there as well.

He said he could take us to see the parachutes that were still laying on the hillsides leading to that town. There had been fierce fighting around that town. And after we conducted the interview and left, two wounded men were brought into this man's house.

In another location further south, close to the town of Tibnin, we were talking with people who were coming out and looking at their damaged homes for the first time, and a battered old yellow Mercedes came racing around the corner with a wounded Hezbollah fighter in the back, who had just taken a bullet to the chest, the driver said, from an Israeli rifle. And the driver said he'd seen two dead Hezbollah fighters next to this man who he was rushing to a hospital.

CHADWICK: NPR's Ivan Watson reporting from Tyre in southern Lebanon.

Ivan, thanks again.

WATSON: You're welcome, Alex.

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