In Lebanon: Heading Home, Proclaiming Victory

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Refugees clog roadways heading south to the towns and villages they abandoned as the cease-fire seems to be holding in Lebanon. Many of them are claiming a Hezbollah victory for resisting the Israeli army for a month. Other Lebanese, however, are stunned by the damage they find when they return home.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There have been some small skirmishes, but the cease-fire that took hold in Lebanon this morning appears to be sticking. When the fighting stopped, large numbers of displaced Lebanese headed south to the towns and villages they abandoned. Hezbollah's leader appeared on television, calling the day a strategic, historic victory against Israel and he promised to help Lebanese rebuild their shattered homes.

Coming up, we'll hear how Israelis reacted to the end of the fighting, and what President Bush had to say about the cease-fire.

First, NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Lebanon.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

At 7:45 a.m. local time, Israeli bombs were still hitting the hills around Beirut. But at 8:00 a.m., the bombs stopped falling and within minutes, it seemed, bulldozers were at work clearing debris from the roads and filling in some of the countless craters left by Israeli airstrikes.

They couldn't work fast enough, because by 10:00 a.m., traffic on a road leading to southern Lebanon was already jammed to a halt by thousands of cars packed with refugees, all rushing to go home.

Some of the kids in the cars here held up two fingers in a victory sign as they inched past the three-foot long Israeli bomb lying unexploded on the asphalt. Nearby, Hezbollah supporters handed out pink leaflets that said, Congratulations to you all for the great victory. Signed, Hezbollah.

Mr. HASSAN HAMDEN(ph): Important victory.

WATSON: Hassan Hamden agreed. This young pharmacist was headed to his home city of Navitia(ph) to see whether his pharmacy was still standing after more than four weeks of fighting.

Mr. HAMDEN: Yes, it's a victory for Lebanon. It's the first country, Arab country, can tell Israel no. All country Arab, but us.

WATSON: But for Hamden, this victory is bittersweet. He's planning to flee the country, he says, because he doesn't think the United Nations' brokered cease-fire will hold.

Mr. HAMDEN: No, I don't think it. Because I don't trust U.N. United Nations. I don't trust United Nations.

WATSON: For the south, the flood of returning refugees dropped to a mere trickle at a makeshift bridge crossing the Litani River. The fifteen miles of territory between here and the Israeli border have borne the brunt of the Israeli air and land offensive. At times, cars have to creep down roads littered with shrapnel and chunks of concrete, through eerily empty villages scarred by explosions.

The only people in the bombed-out village of Kilway(ph) were at the mayor's house, which has taken a direct hit from an Israeli artillery shell. Here, Mayor Hussein Rumadi(ph) sat in his garden surrounded by bearded men dressed in camouflage pants and uniforms, smoking what he called a victory water pipe.

Rumadi talked of victory, even though hundreds of Israeli soldiers continued to occupy the neighboring village of Gundarea(ph), less than five miles away, after they parachuted into the village late Friday night.

Mr. HUSSEIN RUMADI (Mayor of Kilway, Lebanon): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: If we had the weapons that America gives Israel, he boasted, Hezbollah would control the Middle East. Rumadi said no one was shooting at the Israeli soldiers because of the cease-fire. After the interview, two wounded men in uniform were seen being helped into the mayor's garden.

But not all Lebanese were so eager to celebrate what Hezbollah calls a victory. In the frontline town of Tigene(ph), the Musaf family emerged for the first time after hiding in a hospital for 19 days. Mela Musaf(ph) instructed her six children to walk in line behind her as she led them up a rubble-strewn path to their house for the first time in weeks. She was stunned to find a gaping hole in her roof, left after a bomb blew up her kitchen.

Ms. MELA MUSAF (Resident, Tigene, Lebanon): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Her husband, Raz(ph), waited downstairs, next to his damaged car, in shock, his eyes red with tears.

Mr. RAZ MUSAF (Resident, Tigene, Lebanon): We don't have anything left.

WATSON: Shortly after 3:00 p.m., a battered yellow taxi raced to Tigene hospital to deliver a wounded Hezbollah fighter. One of the taxi passengers was Musaf Janeel(ph).

When did that guy get shot?

Mr. MUSAF JANEEL (Resident, Lebanon): Now. Before 30 minutes.

WATSON: He said the fighter had just been shot through the chest in the nearby village of Hadatha(ph), along with two other Hezbollah militants, who he said were lying dead in the road.

Mr. JANEEL: Now, this. They kill three people.

WATSON: Israel confirmed today that its forces killed at least six Hezbollah fighters since the start of the truce.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Tigene, in southern Lebanon.

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