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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

Aita's mayor, haj taysir, could be seen everywhere in the town, coordinating relief efforts and reconstruction. He was a pharmacist by trade, and as he talked to people, he hastily took notes on drug-company stationery. Dark-skinned, with prominent features, he looked thin everywhere but his belly and had a slightly disheveled air about him; he had returned to Aita the day after the cease-fire. "I felt an urge for revenge against those who destroyed my town," he told me. "We tell them the will of this people will be more powerful than their tanks, which want to explode us and destroy us." His needs now included water, electricity, health care, and "everything you can imagine." I asked him if he had received help from the Lebanese government. "Lebanese government, bah!" he exclaimed. "We have a government in name only."

In yards, gardens, and plots in the center of town, and in the fields all around it, tobacco plants withered in the sun. The tobacco cycle dominated life in Aita. The stalks, with their thick, sticky leaves, grew to five feet, and in the summer they bloomed white and pink. The harvest lasted several months. The leaves were hung in the shade in large bundles, and they turned yellow and auburn as they cured. They were then placed in wooden containers, to be sold for about $4 per pound in December, when the cycle began anew. Entire families were involved in the planting, harvesting, and curing, regardless of age or gender, and neighbors would help too if they were finished with their own crop. Now the fields were inaccessible, littered with unexploded bombs.

Like many towns in southern Lebanon, Aita spilled outward from a historic core on a hilltop. The old town had provided good shelter for fighters, who hid in the tight, haphazardly arranged alleys and yards, and so much of it had been bulldozed by the Israelis. Displaced families occasionally came down from Beirut to dig through the rocks and look for their valuables. One man had rented a crane to find files he needed for work. Nearby stood a short old man with a clipped beard and a Nike hat, looking at a pile of rubble that had been his home, garage, and shop. I asked him why he was smiling. "I am very happy because we are the victors," he said.

He would rebuild his house, and his business too. His family had lost all its personal effects—pictures, passports, ID cards—but that didn't matter. "What I miss are my trees," he said. "They were good trees—pomegranate, lemon, fig. They are what I miss, not the house. My two sons fought during the war, so there is no need to be angry from this destruction." He told me that three Hezbollah fighters had been killed in his house, and when he rebuilt, he would put up a memorial to them.

Across town I met Jamil Jamil, whose family was one of the few to have stayed in Aita during the entire war, helping feed the fighters. When I arrived at his house, he put on his traditional white head scarf and tucked in his shirt. He was a 77-year-old tobacco farmer who also grew olives and wheat, and we sat in the shade of the grapevines that his family carefully tended. Four of his nine sons had fought with Hezbollah, and about ten fighters had stayed in his home.

When Jamil was young, people from Aita had often gone to Palestine to work and had traded their crops across the border; he himself had worked at a restaurant in Haifa. Then came the nakba, or catastrophe, the Arabic term for the expulsion and flight of more than half a million Palestinians during Israel's war of independence in 1948. Soon, he remembered, "the whole town was full of Palestinians." The refugees told of others who needed help, so he went into Palestine with his camel to carry people to safety.

"Some men took Palestinian wives, but only one woman from town married a Palestinian man," Jamil told me. "In the beginning they expected to go back after a week, a month, a year." They had left eventually, but in the opposite direction—to refugee camps deeper inside Lebanon—and their fate would shape the conflict in the Middle East for generations to come.

Walking through town, it was easy to spot the homes of the dead fighters. On balconies, porches, and in living rooms guests sat silently, the women wearing black, the men's shoulders slumped. There was always bitter coffee served in tiny ceramic cups, with sweets offered alongside. In one of those homes I met Haj Wehbe, whose son had been one of the highest-ranking Hezbollah fighters slain during the war. A small, jovial man of 66, he considered it a kind of triumph that Israeli forces had seen fit to expend so much effort on Aita. "When we came and found our homes destroyed, we were happy," he told me. "They were fighting homes and stones, and we achieved a victory." In his view, Aita had defeated Israel and America, and now both George Bush and Ehud Olmert were afraid of Lebanon.

Not far away was the house of Abu Yusuf. Approaching the front steps, I called out, "Ya Allah?" as was the practice; inside, several women in black were seated in silence. Abu Yusuf's eldest son, Seyid Yusuf Muhamad, had been a mathematics student and an intern at a bank when the war broke out. He immediately came to Aita to help. "He was not in Hezbollah," his father told me. "He was just a citizen fighting the occupation. But during the war, all the fighters are Hezbollah. At the end, all of us were with Hezbollah and all the south was with Hezbollah." Abu Yusuf was tired, and the sorrow of losing his son showed in his sun-reddened, pockmarked face. There was little bravado in his voice, and his eyes were soft and mournful.

From 1997 to 2000, Abu Yusuf had been held in Khiam, a prison set up by the South Lebanon Army. For a year and a half, he said, his wife had been imprisoned with him in order to pressure him to talk. There were many stories like his in Aita; their details were impossible to confirm, but they had become part of the town's lore. "Khiam was worse than Abu Ghraib," Abu Yusuf said, and he talked about the electrical wires connected to his penis, the hot and cold water, the noises blasted into his ears. He said he had spent 82 days in solitary confinement, in a three-foot-by-five-foot room that was constantly wet, and he still had back pains as a result. In all, more than 150 people from Aita had been in Khiam and in Israeli prisons, he said, "and this is why we resist. The resistance is revenge." Abu Yusuf had fought in the July War, and it was said that he had killed the Israeli soldier who killed his son.

I found Sikna Ahmed Merai looking down from the balcony of her family's home, which stood comparatively undamaged, with only its windows and doors blown out. A shy 12-year-old dressed entirely in pink, she told me that she and her two cousins had been playing atop the rubble of her grandmother's house when a cluster bomb went off and she felt like she was flying. When she awoke, she had shrapnel in her abdomen and torso. Her cousin had been disemboweled. She had seen many other unexploded bombs. "We didn't run away to Beirut like others," she smiled proudly, overcoming her shyness for an instant. She told me that she loved Hezbollah. "They help the people and kill the Israelis."

One of the youngest Hezbollah fighters to die defending Aita was Shadi Hani Safad. I found his house by spotting a row of women in black on a balcony. In family pictures, Safad had large dark eyes and a small tapering chin that made him look younger than his 18 years. He had passed his high school exit exams two days before the war started. His English teacher, Roula Khalil, had joined the mourners at his family's house. "He was a brilliant student," she told me. "I was surprised he was a fighter—it was the first time I heard about it. He wanted to learn everything. I never had to criticize him." Safad had studied in nearby Rmeish, even though it was a Christian town, because the school there taught in French and was very good. He had taken additional classes in English with Khalil. "I am not Shadi's teacher," she insisted. "How can you enter a class and teach young men like these? They teach you how to die for something you believe in." Safad had worked in his father's restaurant and sold electronic appliances. Although Safad's mother insisted he was always very devout, his friends admitted that he liked listening to music, something the movement disapproved of.

Safad's mother told me that as a little boy he had wanted to join Hezbollah and had asked her if it would still be around when he grew up. His cousin had been killed in the 1990s, and the South Lebanon Army had prevented Safad from attending the funeral. He would spit at Israeli vehicles, she said, and tell her that he was not afraid. His sister brought out a picture of Safad at 14, shaking the hand of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader. As more relatives arrived, the women began to cry, and one of the aunts called for Safad, asking why he had to die. His father began to cry as well, until he collected himself and told the women to stop.

Safad had died on the second day of the war. He had two sisters and two younger brothers. "I feel my other sons might join Hezbollah," his father told me. "I want them to, but their mother is worried." His nephew had also been killed. Safad's father, a dark-skinned, thin man with angular features and a dusting of white stubble, told me that as a boy during the '60s, he had seen the mutilated remains of a couple who had been working in their fields when Israeli bombs fell. He mocked the Lebanese army, which had failed to protect Lebanon then and now. "We will always need a resistance," he told me.

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