QANA, Lebanon — Since the beginning of this conflict with Israel, Hezbollah fighters have been almost like ghosts.
We’ve gone into towns and there appears to be nobody in them. You certainly don’t see Hezbollah gunmen roaming around. They are very, very low-profile.
But on Monday in Qana, there were many of them on the streets. Hezbollah fighters, as well as the few civilians left in the area, were taking advantage of the 48-hour suspension of Israeli airstrikes to assess the situation and to move about.
Hezbollah out and about
In one area downtown there appeared to be 10 to 15 young men in their 30s or 40s who were Hezbollah members or sympathizers.
We could identify them as part of Hezbollah by the way they behave, their age group and their body language.
And by the fact that they are basically the only young men in this city.
All we’ve been seeing driving around from town to town is women and children. So when we suddenly pulled up and saw a group of about ten young guys sitting around with radios, and they didn’t want their picture taken, it was pretty obvious who they were.
The men were dressed in civilian clothes, but some of them had Hezbollah tattoos, and one young man was wearing a Hezbollah tee-shirt with a picture of one of the Hezbollah leaders on it.
And then there were the ones in cars. You could see more young men with slight beards, short haircuts, tee-shirts and jeans driving around with radios and late model Mercedes and BMWs. They were on the move — moving around, communicating, and trying to stay on top of the situation.
Where were all the men?
They were generally willing to talk. I was trying to figure out why there were so few male victims in the Israeli bombing in Qana on Sunday that killed at least 56 Lebanese civilians, mostly women and children seeking shelter.
I was perplexed. I wanted to find out, why were there no men? Were these the wives and families of Hezbollah fighters who were left behind? Or were they poor people who couldn’t leave? Who were the civilians killed in this building?
This is in many ways a Hezbollah town. The neighbors of the building that was destroyed are all Hezbollah supporters — you could see posters of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in some of the homes that we poked our heads into.
It seems that the people who were taking shelter in this building were women, children and some old handicapped men who were all very poor and who didn’t have enough money to leave. Hezbollah has a social network and they were bringing them food and taking care of them.
There were some Hezbollah members living in a house next door, but I didn’t see any evidence that they had been using this area specifically to launch rockets. It is very possible, but I didn’t see any evidence.
The Hezbollah members we spoke to said most of their families have already been moved out of the area and that they were taking care of these people who were just very poor.
They seemed well informed. They were getting news updates from radio, TV and over their walkie-talkies. They had very precise information about where there had been airstrikes and where there hadn’t.
Overall, the impression I got on Monday was that this was a break to get the last of the trapped civilians out before the fighting can intensify. Then there will be an assumption on both sides that once the civilians are out, the gloves can come off.
I didn’t see them making any bombs or any preparations like that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was going on behind closed doors. It was clear, though, that there was more Hezbollah movement and visibility than I had seen on any previous day down here.
The lull also has been an opportunity for emergency workers and supplies to access some of these towns that have been cut off.
The roads were crowded with traffic in both directions. There were people packing up and leaving, as well as people who had left their villages before who were going back to pick things up they had left behind. There was a real sense that this was an opportunity to move around because the roads have been so dangerous.
After Monday, I would be surprised if there will be any people still living in Qana other than a few young men. But, the young men kept saying, “We have to stay here. We are not going to make the same mistake as the Palestinians made,” referring to the Palestinians in 1948 who largely left their land when Israel come into being.
That’s the way they view this conflict. That if they don’t stay in their homes they will be forced to become refugees. It’s seen in real apocalyptic terms like that.
Richard Engel is the NBC News Beirut bureau chief.