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With bridges gone, Lebanese struggle

There are no more bridges along the 90 miles of the Litani River, dividing besieged southern Lebanon and Hezbollah's fighters from the rest of the country. One by one, Israeli forces bombed them all.
Red Cross workers pass boxes of aid supplies intended for southern Lebanon from one side of the Litani River to the other following Israeli bombardment, north of the port city of Tyre, southern Lebanon, on Tuesday.Marko Kokic / ICRC via AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There are no more bridges along the 90 miles of the Litani River, dividing besieged southern Lebanon and Hezbollah's fighters from the rest of the country. One by one, Israeli forces bombed them all. So a little ways from the Mediterranean Sea, where the river's meandering waters eddy, then empty, about 20 men heaved, pushed, pulled and coaxed -- with appeals to God in between -- two water-logged trucks carrying supplies Wednesday to regions bearing the brunt of Israel's invasion.

Over a few hours, Hezbollah's shadowy organization emerged on the banks of the Litani. "Don't take pictures!" one of the men shouted.

The dozens of black bags, filled with tuna, sardines, rice, processed cheese, sugar and tea, were marked with stickers in red and green. "A Gift, the Red Crescent Society, the Islamic Republic of Iran," they read. Scrawled on one car was a prayer: "Under the protection of the merciful." Around them hurried men with walkie-talkies and cellphones, furtively glancing at sounds of war above.

They worked with precision -- everyone had a job, hardly a movement was wasted.

And they worked with speed -- no one knew when one of the distant sounds might signal an Israeli attack.

"It's dangerous," one young man said, nerves quickening his pace, as he lugged loads of bread, "but Hezbollah is strong."

In a methodical campaign to isolate southern Lebanon, where 10,000 Israeli soldiers are fighting a dogged foe, Israel has blockaded the city of Tyre, dozens of villages and the rock-strewn valleys between them. The bridges are wrecked. So are the roads. And menacing Israeli leaflets sprinkled over Tyre have warned that any car in the street, whatever the type, at whatever hour, may be annihilated.

But a guerrilla war dictates resilience, and along patches of the Litani, shrouded by wilting banana plantations and parched citrus groves, the provisions and casualties of battle passed Wednesday where there was no passing. Along with the supplies came the wounded fighters, ferried by the Red Cross across a fallen tree further up the river, and along with the wounded came more bread, hand carried over rushing waters where a bridge once stood.

"Let's push!" one man ordered.

A red Toyota pickup truck was stuck three-quarters across the Litani and, 20 yards away, a white truck that was sinking into the river after trying to cross a makeshift bridge of blue steel plates perched on mounds of gravel and sand.

The driver gunned the Toyota, then its engine stalled. Five men attached a long wire, then tried to pull it up the bank.

"Come on guys!" one of them yelled.

The efforts were in vain. A white van backed to the bank, the wire soon tethered to its fender.

It pulled, its wheels digging into the powdery snow-like sand. "Little by little!" another man yelled. The Toyota crept forward, water churning against the side. Then the heaviest of the men jumped on the hood, belly first, giving the pickup enough traction to emerge.

Across the river were the rest of the provisions -- dozens of sacks of flat Arabic bread in white plastic, ten pieces in each, piled on a grassy spot. Near them were flour bags, stacked in a mound.

Time ordered everything, as the thud of munitions punctured the sounds of the river's waters.

"There are going to be planes in the air," the young boy carrying the bread said, skipping across what was left of the bridge. Every once in a while, he glanced upward. "Everything south of the Litani has a curfew, and anything moving will be hit."

He said he was delivering the bread to Abu Fadi, a Hezbollah member, in the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Qasmiya.

As he talked, an older man approached the teenager, who was wearing black plastic sandals, blue shorts and a shirt that read, "Sports Evolution." "Don't say one more word!" he yelled at him.

He glanced at others nearby, waving his hands: "This guy's crazy!"

Clandestine operation
In a month-long war with Israel, still raging in villages along the border, Hezbollah has survived as a guerrilla army with support of the Shiite Muslim population in southern Lebanon, an organization honed by a nearly two-decade fight against the Israelis and devotion instilled by faith. It has survived, too, by a clandestine operation often unknown even to the villagers who live among them.

Rarely does someone acknowledge belonging to the "party," short for Hezbollah's name in Arabic, the Party of God. If they did, it would come in the mantras its activists often recite: The people are the resistance, the resistance is the people.

"Everyone is part of the party," one of the men said.

Others said they were simply helping the people -- "children, women and infants," cut off from food, medicine and fuel.

"The party? I don't know," another man offered. "Ask the party how they're eating."

On the river banks, the men pushed the white truck still stranded in the water. On one side was written, "General Transport." On the other, "I love you, Lebanon." A green army tarp was thrown over the top, covering black plastic bags of food from Iran. They pushed, then relented, as the van pulled in front of it, eventually pulling it out of the water, too.

As they dislodged the truck, five others stood on a wood plank propped in the water, forming a human chain next to it. They unloaded the bags in less than a half hour. Everyone was at work, in a scene somehow frenetic but organized.

At the side, a stocky man in sandals and a beard of a few days glanced around. Unafraid, he called himself.

‘God is above the airplanes’
"We're not scared of anything but God," he said, pointing to the sky. "There's God. God is above the airplanes."

Under the thatch roof, a man who seemed most senior surveyed the scene. He was well dressed, in a plaid shirt, khaki pants and military-style canvas belt. Next to him was a man in similar dress with a baseball cap, walkie-talkie on his right hip under his shirt.

Calm and assured, he smiled faintly, wryly.

"This comes from Iran but maybe after awhile the next shipment will come from France," he said.

Moments later, he looked out as the men tried to repair the makeshift bridges, hauling the steel plates spanning the river.

"The road's not only for the party," he said. "Civilians can pass, too."

Less than a mile up the river, where Israeli forces had bombed a pile of fine sand hastily bulldozed to ford the Litani, a Red Cross ambulance arrived before noon, carrying five wounded Hezbollah fighters. It crossed what had become a moonscape. Two bulldozers were buried in sand, and a ghostly gray dust had settled over the banana plantation. Bombs had dug two craters in front of the river. Along the Litani, the water flowed into another crater, then across the rubble of a pipe before fanning out toward the sea.

At one spot, a 30-foot tree caked in wet sand was propped across the river, one of the few places to cross.

"It's forbidden to take pictures," said Sami Yazbek, the head of the Lebanese Red Cross office in Tyre.

When asked if they were fighters, he simply nodded.

The fighters walked out of the ambulance, heading toward the tree and another ambulance waiting on the other side. They were from Jebel Aamil hospital in Tyre, evacuated to make room for more wounded. Beyond that, though, no one was talking.

"I don't know anything," said Yusuf Rafai, a 43-year-old Red Cross volunteer.

"I know they're Lebanese," he added. "More than that, I don't know."

None of the fighters wanted to talk, either.

One pulled his black T-shirt over his face. Another put his left hand over his mouth. A third, when asked where he was from said, "I don't know." Red Cross volunteers helped them along, gingerly. Two of the wounded carried IVs in their hands, both with gauze wrapped around their heads. Another had his shoulder a sling. One wore a neck brace.

The left foot of the fifth man was bandaged. He walked with crutches, one with the factory wrapper still on it.

"Be careful," one of the Red Cross volunteers said, helping him to the river. "A little at a time, a little at a time."

Two other Red Cross volunteers came to his aid. They treated the men not as fighters but as neighbors, their exchanges sympathetic, respectful, even encouraging. The wounded fighter stumbled at first, steadied himself, then hopped across the log.

"You can do it," one of the volunteers said, urging him on. "You're a tough guy!"

‘Eating grass’
Once across, the volunteers surveyed the river. They said they had more wounded to bring.

"We've got to see if there's a way to get the others across the river," Yazbek urged a colleague before leaving.

Throughout the day, the few Lebanese willing to defy the Israeli warnings made their way to the river, some to flee their besieged towns, others to fetch food. Mohammed Zeidan, a wiry 30-year-old in a red shirt, came with a neighbor from Haniyeh in a blue Toyota, a trip of about 10 miles that took two hours. He planned to cross the river on foot, catch a cab, drive an hour or so north, then bring back 200 packs of bread for his return trip.

"The people back there are eating grass," he said, pointing southward toward his village, where 250 families remained. "This is the only way to make sure people are okay," he said, looking at the crossing. "And if they fix it, they're going to attack it again."

Three hours later, Zeidan returned with the bread, its price having doubled since the start of the war.

"Thank God, we arrived," he said, crossing the river.

He, a Christian friend, George Abdullah, and others ferried the bread across, loading the trunk of the Toyota.

"That's it for today," he said, with a hint of satisfaction. "Tomorrow we'll go again. The people need to eat."

Sweat was pouring from his brow, and his red shirt was wet. His body was tense, as the fighting echoed in the distance.

"We're just volunteers. We're doing this on our own, without money, without anything," he said.

Zeidan shook his head. "There's no alternative. There's no one else to do this."