A little after dawn Monday, the shells crashed every few seconds. The last fell at 7:56 a.m. Then they stopped, as suddenly as they had begun 33 days before. And into the streets of this Shiite Muslim town, where electricity wires laced through rubble and a tree branch sprawled across the hood of a green BMW, the fighters emerged, bathed in a cool mountain breeze.
There was no gunfire in the air, no chants, no jubilant displays of celebration. There were, rather, the satisfied expressions of survival. Men embraced, kissing each other's cheeks, some emerging into sunlight for the first time in weeks. Cellphones, in almost everyone's hand, rang with queries of others' whereabouts, the fate of houses and the reality of a cease-fire that still seemed fragile. They smiled. "Thank God for your safety" was the refrain.
And Hussein Kalash, burly, hard and confident, offered three words that defined the war for Khiam's defenders, the Hezbollah fighters.
"We're still here," he said.
The war ended Monday -- at least for now -- in Khiam, a hilltop town perched within eyesight of the Israeli border. But the fighters began weaving the narratives even before a bulldozer threw up dust as it cleared rubble from the town's tattered streets, where hardly a building was untouched. They were myths of resistance -- of tanks repulsed across the fertile plain that frames the town; of surviving on chocolate and water for two weeks along the town's front line; of faith serving as their greatest weapon.
In an undecided war, perception becomes paramount, and the gaggles of fighters Monday, some with drawn faces, others with a look of contentment, walked like victors through a town that was gouged, cratered and pockmarked but, they said, still theirs.
"They couldn't enter," said Abu Abboud, wearing a jersey that read "Narkotic" and khaki military-style pants.
He sat on a short staircase, rubble skirting the building, its facade torn by shelling. Its red and yellow steel gates were tossed in the street like crumpled pieces of paper. A cat tentatively crawled through the wreckage, as Israeli aircraft sounded overhead. He greeted another fighter, in military-style pants and black hiking boots, black prayers beads hung around his neck.
"Either we live with dignity and strength or death is better," he said.
Conveying the wounded
Two ambulances arrived on the outskirts of Khiam at 10:10 a.m., past charred, terraced fields. They were met by a man named Abu Heidar, dressed in khakis. He had a cigarette in one hand. In the other was his cellphone, and he pleaded for help.
"It's closed," he shouted, staring at the road. "What about the way near the house next to your friend?"
Concrete was sprayed on the ground before the ambulances, some pieces the size of glass shards, others like boulders.
Abu Heidar turned to the ambulance driver, pointing to the wounded fighters in the town.
"You need to get up there," he told him, taking the phone away from his ear.
The driver's face was tense and tired. "I know the way, but it's blocked," he answered. "What can we do?"
The ambulances plowed ahead, and turned back. They lurched forward, then returned. One Red Cross volunteer heaved rocks from the road himself, helped by Abu Heidar, and they tentatively crept forward to a street near the May Salon for Women, where a purple veil was still draped on the head of a mannequin. On one wall was a poster: "Israel is an absolute evil." Cologne worn by one of the fighters gave off a faint scent. In the floors above, window frames were torn from balconies, their curtains fluttering in the breeze.
Three fighters carried out the first of the wounded, an elderly woman with a stare so blank it seemed lifeless. Flies gathered unnoticed on her still body. The fighters clambered across the rubble and past a few unspent bullets, pieces of shrapnel the size of a fist, a charred bed spring and the twisted fender of a vehicle. Before them was a blackened car that looked like a tin can ripped open.
A wounded fighter followed. His head was bandaged, and an IV was hooked to his arm.
"Just a minute," one of the fighters told the Red Cross volunteer. The fighter pointed to where he was hurt, and they carefully hoisted him onto another stretcher. He gripped his wallet across his chest. "Little by little," one of the fighters said.
Another fighter followed, gingerly walking in black sandals. His head was bandaged, as well as his right arm and left hand, where an IV was connected. His face was sprinkled with scabs. As he approached the ambulance, he gave Kalash a number to call.
"I'm safe," he said into the phone. "Tell everyone there. There's no time now, they want to take me, but I'll call you later."
By noon, about 20 men had emerged on the sidewalk. Some had walkie-talkies, the communication of choice for Hezbollah guerrillas. Many wore civilian shirts over military-style pants. A few had sneakers, others hiking boots. After weeks of staying away from cellphones, fearing the Israeli military might pinpoint the calls, they chatted aimlessly: whether they would be sent elsewhere in southern Lebanon, who was where, who was hurt.
"Everything's okay, it's okay, I just saw him," one called out.
Estimates of the number of fighters ran into the hundreds in Khiam, a town once best known for an Israeli-run prison that Hezbollah turned into a museum after the 18-year Israeli occupation of the south ended in 2000. After this war started, Israeli aircraft destroyed it.
A few of the fighters were exuberant, filled with bravado from a battle they clearly believed they had won.
"We don't want it to end," Kalash said. He pointed toward the Israeli border. "We want to keep going, all the way inside."
More common among the fighters was the subdued demeanor of Abu Khafif, the heavyset, bearded commander, who drove through the town square in a black Mercedes, the rim of a flat tire on the car creaking across the street. Its windshield was cracked like a spider web, and a rifle sat in the front seat.
In black pants, a black Izod shirt and white Fila tennis shoes, he was friendly, smiling as he asked another fighter to change the tire. A black plastic bag with five AK-47 assault rifles sat next to the spare tire, and he casually stocked the trunk with canned luncheon meat and a 10-liter bottle of water. He was confident, grinning at questions. But he was professional, leery of saying anything too revealing.
"Are you going to bother me with talk?" he asked. "I'm not a spokesman, I'm a fighter."
There was a word repeated time and again Monday in Khiam, by both fighters and the residents who chose to stay through the war. It was karama, or dignity. In the speeches of Arab leaders, ridden with clichés that often provided the rhetorical buttress of authoritarian regimes, it had come to lose much of its meaning. But in Khiam, it was uttered so often, so fervently, that it felt different.
"This is our land," said Bilal Ali Saleh, a 42-year-old beekeeper. "Can we leave our land? Would you leave your land?"
He looked out at the street, where two men carried bundles of bottled water. He glided his hand across his black beard, peppered with gray, grown because, he said, no barber had opened since the war started. And he spoke softly, almost matter-of-factly.
‘A legend or not?’
"I remember that the Arab armies in 1967 were defeated in a few days. The Israelis advanced across hundreds of kilometers of land. From what you see here in the south, from what you hear on the radio, they advanced seven kilometers in 33 days, and they couldn't go any further," Saleh said. "Is that not a victory? Do you consider it a legend or not?
"My view, my sense of this, is that no one who comes from their land and is attached to it can ever be defeated," he added. "It is the land of their fathers, it is the land of their grandfathers."
Saleh had stayed the entire time in Khiam. He hadn't tended to his bees, which he kept a few miles outside town. "You think I could go there?" he asked. His store selling household goods was destroyed. He had sent his wife, two sons and three daughters to Beirut. And he weathered the Israeli shelling in Khiam, munitions falling so often that he said it felt like bubbles bursting in boiling water.
"It wasn't less than 20,000 shells that fell here, that's my impression," he said.
After the shelling started, fighters from Hezbollah and another Shiite movement, Amal, waited for what they feared would be an Israeli commando raid. They said shopkeepers had left their keys to provide food -- tuna, luncheon meat and rice. They slaughtered goats, but slept little. Much of it was a test of endurance; for the first three weeks, no Israeli troops approached the town.
But on Wednesday, after dark, fighters said, two Israeli tank columns approached, one heading toward the Christian town of Marjayoun, another into the plain below Khiam, interspersed with cedars and olive trees. Residents said fighters took cover in a school and in several houses that were already destroyed down the hill. Amal fighters had lighter weapons, one fighter said; Hezbollah's far more numerous militiamen had the heavier armaments to use against tanks. By Thursday morning, fighting had erupted.
A 35-year-old fighter said they destroyed two tanks in the morning, then struck again when the Israelis tried to withdraw the equipment the next day. He said they struck other tanks and armored vehicles before the cease-fire went into effect Monday -- a dozen, perhaps more. The fighters believed Israeli troops were trying to enter the city, although there was no indication of that. Other fighters said the militiamen manning the lower hills of Khiam survived on candy bars and water, too wary to move elsewhere for food.
But even Monday, after the guns fell silent, secrecy prevailed.
At one house where men were gathered, shouts of "Go! Go!" greeted approaching people. To any question on strategy, the 35-year-old fighter demurred. As for his name, he shook his head. On Hezbollah's own losses, he declined to answer.
The fighter -- who described himself as a 20-year veteran, recruited while still in high school -- stood in a gutted, unfinished house. An incinerated rocket-propelled grenade launcher was next to him, beside a barely recognizable carcass of a car.
"The Israelis said this was a battle for life and death, but with everything they had, they couldn't defeat us," he said.
By afternoon, fighters mingled with residents in festive scenes dissonant with the destruction around them. They drew on references to the Shiite faith, whose narrative intersects with Hezbollah's Lebanese and Arab nationalism. Nearby, a poster of two militiamen read, "Lebanon is victorious with its martyrs." A passenger in one passing car flashed a V-for-victory sign.
A bulldozer barreled down the streets, sweeping chunks of concrete, clods of asphalt and Coke bottles to the side. It worked quickly and recklessly; at one point, it knocked down the rest of the wall of a collapsed house. Cars began plying the streets again, and people returned to the streets, some sitting in the sidewalks near the Abu Abbas market, whose windows were shattered.
"Money comes and goes. This is all money," said Hassan Sweid, a 37-year-old resident, his eyes darting around the block. "We're still here, we still have our lives, we still have our land. If this is the sacrifice for dignity, this is nothing."