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The Mayor, the Martyr, and the Pomegranate Trees

How the Lebanese town of Aita al Shaab won the war and lost almost everything

By the third week of august, Beirut's trendy Gemmayzeh Cafe was once more full of revelers. It was the first time live music had been back since the war, and as the beers were poured and narghiles lit, an oud player finished tuning his instrument and began strumming. "God be with you, oh steadfast south," he wailed in a low voice, and the crowd of 200 or so cheered at the tribute—an old song, by the famed Wadi al-Safi, for this was not the first war southern Lebanon had endured. Then the music turned to Fairuz, songs of love and pain, and the squat old manager danced and encouraged the young women to do the same, which they did, waists shaking and arms waving and hands twisting as onlookers raised their glasses and clapped. It was almost as if life were back to normal, for indeed here in east Beirut it had barely been disrupted and there were even those in the Sunni and Christian neighborhoods who had initially hoped Israel would succeed in its war to destroy Hezbollah, a war in fact to crush the will of the mostly Shia steadfast people of the south.

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The 60-mile trip from Beirut south to the Israeli border might have taken a couple of hours in the past, but now it could take a day or more to navigate around roads and bridges that had been destroyed in what the Lebanese called the "July War." Beyond Tyre, the biggest city in southern Lebanon, every village I could see from the road lay in ruins. Finally, at the southernmost tip of Lebanon, past a sign spray-painted "We will be back" by Israeli soldiers, I arrived in the town of Aita al Shaab.

It was 10 in the morning, and through the smell of dust and decay wafted a more inviting scent from the Intersection Bakery, named for its spot at a fork in the road. The bakery was crowded as men, women, and children gathered to bring home a breakfast of manqish, a circular flat bread that is cooked with thyme, sesame, cheese, or meat. Some ordered half a dozen thyme or cheese manqish; others prepared the loaves themselves, brushing on oil and throwing on cheese and pinching the edges before handing the manqish to the bakers to slide into the oven. Women in long shirts that reached halfway down their jeans stood beside boys in dusty baseball caps and men who focused on their task with stern dedication.

Aita was a small town, and its residents were closely bound in a cycle that began with the manqish in the morning and continued in the butcher shops, in the planting and harvesting of tobacco, in the mourning of the dead, and in the rebuilding of the town. For although the Intersection Bakery had somehow been spared, outside was a scene from War of the Worlds, or perhaps Dresden. Aita had been attacked more than 30 times in the July War. Only a fraction of its people had trickled back, and when their manqish emerged from the oven, they folded it in half, wrapped it in newspaper, and carried it to the broken, crushed, and exploded remnants of their homes.

It was from the area of Aita that Hezbollah fighters had crossed the border into Israel on July 12 and captured two Israeli soldiers, a daring attack that was the pretext for one month of hell that killed at least 1,200 civilians in Lebanon and wrecked billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure in a country just recovering from a quarter century of war. During the offensive, 85 percent of Aita's homes had been destroyed. Schools, homes, and tobacco fields had all been targeted, here and elsewhere in the south, in what the locals considered a conscious strategy to erase the villages along the border and make it impossible for residents to return. When Israeli officials said they wanted Hezbollah to move north of the Litani River, it meant to most people here that all their neighbors were being targeted for removal.

Against this backdrop, the "Battle of Aita" had become legendary in Lebanon: Somehow about 100 Hezbollah fighters had held on in the town, making it impossible for the Israelis to capture. Most of these men, I was told, had been from Aita. Nine locals had been killed, including a history teacher, a lawyer, and a few university students. Many in the town had been surprised to learn who among them was a fighter.

Aita's main road led from the Intersection Bakery up to the old town. Alongside it, on the roofs of any houses that had not completely collapsed, residents had erected tents and hung laundry to dry. In between homes stood towering pine trees, grapevines, and flowers. Well-muscled young men with hard faces and short beards raced through town on off-road motorcycles; they were Hezbollah fighters on patrol. Past a grocery store that had just reopened was a large clearing with a view to a verdant valley and hills that were on the Israeli side. Israeli military bulldozers had made the clearing, and the remains of one of them lay below. Visitors often had their picture taken next to it.

Abu Hassan Bajuki's toy store, World of Toys, which had opened just a few months earlier but had been very successful because it was the only such store in the region, was gone. The blood of a donkey that Abu Hassan's family had tied up outside stained what was left of the walls. The town's main library was gone too, though some 700 of its books had been rescued—texts on religion, the novels of Victor Hugo, the writings of Marx and Lenin and Bakunin.

Muhamad Rida's grocery store had survived the war and was fully stocked, but every time I walked by, I saw it empty. Muhamad Rida and his family had refused to let Hezbollah and the townspeople take goods from the store, and as a result there was now a silent boycott. Aita was a town of few secrets and long memories; it sat atop the remnants of Roman settlements, and its two main families, the Bajuk and the Srur, had feuded in centuries past. But that conflict had since been replaced by a larger one. Over the past half century, Israel had invaded Lebanon several times and also conducted raids, incursions, and kidnappings to battle Palestinian fighters raiding Israel. Beginning in 1978 it remained as an occupier in the south, establishing a proxy force, the South Lebanon Army, made up of Lebanese Christians as well as local Shia Muslims. When Israel withdrew in 2000, the sla collapsed and Hezbollah took control of much of the area, launching regular rocket attacks into northern Israel.

At the time the July War began, the Israeli military had brought in loudspeaker trucks ordering the people of the town to leave, and elsewhere it had dropped leaflets from the air. But following those orders was harder than it seemed. Fighter planes and drones were bombing vehicles on roads, and with prices for a van ride to Beirut reaching upward of $400, many families could not afford to get out. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International later noted that this war had a higher rate of civilian deaths per day than is typical in modern warfare. During the last 72 hours before the cease-fire, more cluster bombs were dropped in southern Lebanon than during the entire previous month.

Aita normally had about 11,000 people. Almost all had fled when heavy shelling began; after the cease-fire some 7,000 returned, but many of them left upon seeing the destruction, and it was not clear whether they would ever come back.

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