TYRE, Lebanon—Ali Dilbani didn't tell his pretty, gray-eyed sweetheart his secret until the day of their engagement party. As their friends and relatives tore into sticky pastries and showered blessings on the young couple, Dilbani pulled Rima away from the festivities to whisper a confession.
"He told me, `I'm with Hezbollah. That could mean one day I'm with you and one day I'm not,'" Rima, 28, recalled this week from her home in this ancient port city on the Mediterranean. "From that first day, I knew our marriage wasn't going to be just babies and family. Ali wanted more from life."
Dilbani yearned for martyrdom, Rima said, the glory of a fighter willing to give his life for Lebanon. His dream was realized on July 21, when he was killed fighting Israeli forces in the cactus-flecked hilltops along Lebanon's southern border.
The military wing of Hezbollah won't tell Dilbani's family where or how he died. With no body to bury, his wife mourns a ghost, but her grief is tinged with the pride and pain of the families that Hezbollah's militants leave behind.
"Of course, this is hard for all of us," said Rima, who already has two sons, Hassan, 6, and Mohamed, 3 and is seven months pregnant, her belly swollen under the folds of a black mourning cloak.
"Come here, Hassan; come, Mohamed," Rima called, gathering her sons next to her on a floral-print sofa. "Where is Daddy?"
The boys appeared confused, so their mother prompted them again.
"Tell us where daddy is," she said sweetly.
"Dead," Mohamed replied in a tiny voice.
"No," his mother chided. "What's the word we use?"
"Martyred," he said.
"And when he wore his army clothes, who was he with? Who do we love?" she asked.
"Hezbollah," the boys answered in unison.
Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group that triggered the latest Mideast crisis by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers on July 12, allowed a reporter to visit the Dilbani home this week. Hezbollah sent an escort, a veteran guerrilla named Ahmed Yusuf, to ensure that no tactical information was divulged. The dead fighter's wife, sister and uncle consented to interviews, but his mother and oldest brother were enraged that his body hadn't been released for burial and refused to comment.
"Why don't they bring him home to me? I won't say a word until I see the body of my son!" his mother screamed from the courtyard. She burst into tears and left.
Yusuf, the Hezbollah escort, was visibly startled, and asked the family to calm down. A reporter and photographer were quickly ushered inside the home, where Dilbani's widow Rima and other relatives said the older members of the household were still too stricken to address questions.
"When you love someone, you have to accept what they want from life. She's sad," Rima said, referring to her mother-in-law's anger, "but Ali got what he wanted. The people here are so proud of him. Boys come by all the time to see the house of the martyr, even if they didn't know him personally."
The Dilbani name commands respect in Bourj el-Shammali, a working class district on the outskirts of Tyre. The family name adorns several storefronts, and the family runs a popular coffee shop that's tucked into the rundown alleyway behind their home.
Dilbani often passed his evenings there, sipping tea and smoking apple-flavored tobacco from a water pipe. His neighbors said they knew him as a mechanic, but they added that it was hard to ignore the fact that on some mornings he left wearing green camouflage.
Like many families here, the Dilbanis hold bitter memories of Israel's shelling of Tyre in an attempt to drive out Palestinian militants who settled here after they were driven out of Jordan in 1970. The family said two of Dilbani's older siblings, Zahra, 16, and Kassim, 18, were killed during fighting in 1975, the year he was born and his country plunged into civil war.
Dilbani never got to know his brother and sister, but their deaths darkened his childhood and, his relatives said, planted the seed of revenge that would flourish in an adolescent who became fascinated by a fledgling militant group that called itself Hezbollah, the Party of God.
Dilbani and other Shiite Muslim boys from the neighborhood kicked soccer balls down streets lined with the portraits of Hezbollah fighters who died in the first terrorist operations and gun battles during the fight against Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Their older brothers were reared on the milder militancy of Amal, a rival Shiite movement. Dilbani's generation, however, swore allegiance to Hezbollah, whose yellow flags fluttered from lampposts throughout Tyre.
Dilbani was drawn not to Hezbollah's social and political programs or its charity work for Lebanon's underprivileged Shiites, but to its shadowy military wing, which he joined in 1995, when he was 24.
"He grew up angry because he saw what Israel was doing to our villages, to our people," said Dilbani's uncle, Abu Ghaith Dilbani. "We are people who want to live happy lives, like anybody else. Is someone a terrorist because he defends this right?"
Dilbani's 11-year record as a Hezbollah fighter remains a mystery, even to his family. Yusuf, the Hezbollah minder, barred questions that related even vaguely to Dilbani's duty as a fighter. But he clearly was a valued one: He twice received personal recognition from Hezbollah's iconic leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
The first honored his participation in fighting that helped drive Israeli forces from the south in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation. He received his second award last year at a ceremony marking Jerusalem Day, an annual show of solidarity with Palestinians that typically draws thousands of Hezbollah supporters to rallies in Beirut and southern cities.
Photos of Dilbani posing next to Nasrallah sat in gold frames on the top of a bookshelf in the living room, next to a Quran and another photo of a uniformed Dilbani firing a rifle. He'd stuck a portrait of Nasrallah in the back window of his aging silver BMW and glued on plastic flowers for decoration. When Dilbani's first son was born six years ago, he was named Hassan, for the Hezbollah chief.
Dilbani was elated when Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 triggered the latest conflict. His usual seriousness was replaced by the giddy anticipation of battle, his family recalled.
"The last time I saw him, he was different," said Zahra, Dilbani's 29-year-old sister, who was named after their older sibling who died in 1975. "I was standing outside, and he came up and hugged me and kissed me. He was very, very happy, smiling. He was not the guy we knew before."
Rima and the others were both proud and terrified when Dilbani set off for the front lines. Before leaving, he bought toys for his sons and chatted with his wife about names for their new baby.
Now that unborn child will know his or her father only as a portrait in the memorial that Hezbollah has promised to erect on their block when the war ends.
"He loved us so much, more than you can imagine. He said, `Don't worry about me, I'll never be far away. I'll always come back to see you,'" Rima said. "But that was the last time."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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