Shards of agony in southern Lebanon

By Megan K. Stack

Los Angeles Times

October 24, 2006

HALTA, LEBANON — There were no fireworks or feasts this year. Instead, it was the funeral of a child that ushered out the holy month of Ramadan in this tiny village of olive farmers.

Ashraf Shibli was 11 years old, and his family remembers him as a clever and curious boy. On Sunday afternoon, he set off a cluster bomb while foraging for pine cones in a sun-dappled grove. The first thing the villagers heard, echoing over the hills, was the explosion. Then they heard his older brother's screams; Ashraf died instantly, his father said.

This village of poor farmers buried his body in the rich soil Monday. The buzz of helicopters rattled the skies overhead. On what should have been one of the most joyful days of the Muslim calendar, this village was like much of south Lebanon: suffused with sadness.

"The war is not over for us," said Ali Hussein Shibli, father of the child, his face grizzled and dazed.

"In the end, nobody really looks after you — not [Saad] Hariri, not Walid Jumblatt," he said, naming two of Lebanon's sectarian leaders. "Not Hezbollah. Who is going to give me back my son now that he's dead?"

Falling at the end of a month of religious, dawn-to-dusk fasting, Eid al-Fitr is cherished by Muslims as a time of celebration and laughter. Most years, the villagers pool the cash they've managed to sock away and buy fireworks. They push work aside to cook enormous feasts, and spend the days roaming from one house to another, visiting and eating.

But this year's Eid holidays have found Lebanon's southern borderlands languishing unhappily in the aftermath of the summer war between Israel and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. These hillside villages and farming towns took the brunt of a monthlong Israeli bombing campaign. The war killed more than 1,000 Lebanese, many of them civilians, and wreaked billions of dollars in damage.

These days, a sliver of cold slices through the sunny air; winter is coming. Many houses and stores in the south have yet to be rebuilt. The agony of war has given way to a slow ordeal of repairing wrecked homes and broken livelihoods, and to uncertainty about the future.

"Most years the people are happy. You can feel it," said Safah Assi, a 30-year-old nurse in the southern town of Marjayoun. "But today people have fewer members of their families, or their homes are destroyed. They don't feel like celebrating."

The bomblets, many of which were made in the United States, have proved the war's most brutal residue. Although about 45,000 bomblets have been cleared and destroyed since the cease-fire, hundreds of thousands remain, scattered throughout the south, according to the United Nations and land-mine groups. More than 20 people have been killed, four of them children, and more than 100 injured by the bomblets since fighting stopped.

The United Nations has condemned Israel's heavy use of the munitions in the final days of the conflict this summer. Hezbollah also has been accused of firing cluster munitions into northern Israel, although on a lesser scale.

Ashraf and his older brother came across the bomb in a clearing carpeted with pine needles. They had been hurling stones at trees to knock pine cones to the ground, a sweeping view of neighboring Israel stretched out at their feet. His family believes Ashraf mistook the cluster bomb for a rock.

Their father, who makes a meager living tending goats and harvesting olives, had tried hard to shield his boys from harm. When war erupted, the family drove over the border to Damascus, Syria's capital, to wait out the fighting. An isolated Sunni village with no Hezbollah posters on display or other noticeable allegiance to the militant group, Halta is hardly a guerrilla stronghold. But its geography and proximity to the border placed it between two warring sides.

After the cease-fire, the townspeople trickled home to find a handful of the village's houses damaged and the mosque crushed.

The mosque was rebuilt quickly, courtesy of the wealthy fiance of a local woman. But the homes have not been repaired. Hezbollah came, the villagers said, and gave "a little." Others — the government, the Sunni community leaders — promised much, but so far nothing has come.

"We felt safe when we came back," said Shibli, the father. "But then there were all these bombs, and it was unbearable."

Just last week, army engineers came to Halta to search for the bomblets. Ashraf scurried along with them, pointing out bombs scattered on the ground in the olive groves, dangling from the branches of trees, his father said. A shepherd narrowly missed injury when his goats unearthed a bomblet; four of the animals were killed.

When the army men left, they told the villagers the land was clear. But after Sunday's explosion, they returned and quickly unearthed at least 40 more bomblets, villagers said.

Olive season has arrived; the fruit hangs dark from the silvery branches. But the people here eye the trees with trepidation.

"Now the people are afraid to harvest their olives, and we all depend on those olives," said Abdullah Darkur, the village cleric. "They are suffering this holiday."

The men sat beneath a canopy of grape vines and under a mourning tent built from tarps dropped here by aid workers after the war. For the first time after a month of Ramadan fasting, they were free to eat in daylight. But the villagers sat staring ahead, coffee cups forgotten in their fingers, eyes rimmed in red.

The women stayed inside, out of sight, consoling one another in the shadows.

About half an hour north on broken roads, five of the family's men sat weary-eyed in a hospital room. They leaned against walls or sat upright on the lone cot, ignoring the television. They trod back and forth to the courtyard to smoke.

The funeral went forth without them; somebody had to stay to watch over the other boy, who was having shrapnel surgically removed from his pelvis. Pale and silent, the men had been sitting there all night. They waited to take the boy home.