AITA EL SHAAB, Lebanon—Even Sahar Bajouk was surprised to learn how many men in her village had belonged to Hezbollah.
Her brothers stayed to fight the Israelis. So did her high school crush, whose initials she'd etched into her hand with a pin from her head scarf. Her history teacher died in battle, along with an administrator from her school and several of her neighbors: an architect, a restaurateur, a college student and a shopkeeper.
Together they'd helped turn this quiet tobacco-farming community into a key base for one of the most sophisticated militant Islamic groups in the world. A memorial service this past weekend showed that support for Hezbollah remains deep, a month after a cease-fire ended 34 days of fighting between the militant group and Israel. It also suggests how difficult it is to separate Islamic militants from the rest of the population, not only in Lebanon but also in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"We have to make it better than before," said Bajouk, who's 17. "It's better to be proud and patient than to cry."
Few places were hit as hard as Aita el Shaab, which is only a few hundred yards from where Hezbollah guerrillas snatched two Israeli soldiers July 12 in a deadly operation, touching off the conflict.
Some 800 homes in Aita el Shaab were destroyed, leaving thousands of villagers homeless and with little hope of rebuilding before winter comes. Rows of businesses were wiped out. Fresh graves dot the town cemetery. Debris and unexploded ordnance litter the soil.
Still, in the complicated arithmetic of southern Lebanon, the damage adds up to victory, Bajouk said. When the cease-fire took effect Aug. 14, Aita el Shaab—or what little remained of it—still belonged to Hezbollah, despite several Israeli attempts to capture it.
"Let me explain the strategic importance of Aita el Shaab. We were the difference between victory and defeat," she said. "We are surrounded by Christian villages, and we knew they wouldn't fight and that there were a lot of collaborators there. If the Israelis had taken Aita, then they would have been able to go all the way up to the Litani River."
Nine fighters and nine civilians had died, their names read at Sunday's memorial service, which drew more than 2,000 villagers on a day that was both funereal and celebratory.
"We'd rather have this town become a ghost town than have it under foreign governance," Nawaf al Musawi, a senior aide to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, told the crowd. "We held fast. We didn't budge."
Bajouk's family is a Hezbollah mainstay. Her father, who owns a toy store, once was banished from the town for helping local fighters during the 18-year Israeli occupation, which ended in 2000. Her brothers are sweet and funny young men who quickly traded their soccer balls for guns when the Israelis attacked. Her little sister, Saja, 7, already knows her Hezbollah catchphrases.
"Bush and Olmert and Blair, they aren't creating the new Middle East, they are creating the dirty Middle East," she said in a singsong voice. "And this in the name of democracy."
"Everybody is saying it, but I taught her," Bajouk confided proudly.
Bajouk had fled the conflict with her parents and her younger sister, leaving her brothers behind to fight. The family reunited days after the cease-fire was announced, and celebrated surviving with a cake. Still, the Bajouks weren't totally spared.
They returned to find a blood-spattered, decomposing donkey at the doorstep of the wrecked toy store. Their home no longer is structurally sound, so they're insulating two rooms at a neighbor's place in preparation for a bitter winter. Bajouk's five beloved cats had disappeared; she keeps pictures of them on her cell phone.
As her neighbors gathered under tents Sunday outside a battle-scarred mosque, Bajouk searched for the best place to watch the ceremony. She darted past weeping women and little boys carrying portraits of their dead fathers. She climbed through a bombed-out apartment building, kicking aside bullet casings and shattered glass. Up the crumbling stairs, she gazed through a broken window on a jumble of life and death.
"See that house over there? That's where Hezbollah kept the collaborators, the spies," she said. "They don't kill them straightaway. First, they're questioned so that they can catch the whole web."
A Shiite Muslim scout group in blue uniforms adorned with photos of Iranian ayatollahs distributed bottles of water. A crisply dressed band played martial music with lyrics that said martyrdom was "as beautiful as the moon." A woman in the crowd thrust a large, gold-framed photo of her late husband into the air and turned slowly before her neighbors, telling them, "Don't cry for me. My husband is a hero."
"She's so strong," Bajouk said, gesturing to the widow. "Her husband was killed next to her in an airstrike and she still stayed in the village and cooked for the fighters, even with her husband under the rubble."
Bajouk will turn 18 next month, and a decision is bearing down on her. She either can leave for university in Beirut to pursue her dream of studying political science or she can stay in Aita el Shaab, find work and marry the young fighter whose initials—M.S.—are still faintly visible between her thumb and forefinger.
She'd found out that he'd survived the battle for Aita el Shaab only at a mass funeral held earlier for other fighters. She scanned the crowd of bearded men in black uniforms until her eyes met his. She couldn't hug him, she said, because there were too many people around. They couldn't even smile for fear of causing a scandal at the somber event. The young couple simply stared at each other for the whole service.
"This boy loves me so much, but I can't make up my mind. He's a fighter, and he stayed," Bajouk said. "OK, he lived this time, but I told him, `What if one day you die fighting and I love you so much?' Maybe I'll have a heart attack and die right after him.
"So I try not to love him."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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