TIBNINE, Lebanon—The villagers came on foot, in wheelbarrows, on donkey carts and in sedans with the back windows blasted out. They hobbled or ran, rejoiced or sobbed, as they emerged Monday after 20 days of hiding from the war that ravaged the hills around their homes along Lebanon's border with Israel.
Israel's announcement Sunday of a 48-hour suspension of airstrikes on Hezbollah strongholds offered a narrow portal of escape for the shellshocked, stranded villagers. They crept out of battle-scarred homes and trudged north to a dismal hospital in Tibnine, which they perceived as the safest site around. Thousands had gathered there over the past two weeks, and Israel hadn't hit it.
Weaving through barefoot pedestrians and rickety cars, one intrepid young duo sailed into town on the back of a shiny, green motorcycle. The lucky friends called it their chariot.
Adel Fadlallah, 20, and Amina Samhat, 14, had heard of the war's temporary halt from news crackling from a radio in the home where their families huddled together Monday in the village of Ainata. Israeli airstrikes had knocked down buildings around them. Days of relentless air raids had left them doubtful of any promise of safe passage.
"When I heard 48 hours, I laughed because I don't believe anything the Israelis say anymore," Samhat said. (In fact, Israeli planes resumed bombing hours after announcing the suspension.)
"She was scared, but I convinced her," Fadlallah boasted.
They decided to make a run for it.
Samhat stuffed her best clothes and favorite baby pictures into a backpack. She's a fledgling artist who paints stones from her village with brightly colored patterns. She began loading them into the bag, but quickly realized they were too heavy for the walk north to Tibnine. She ended up taking only one.
Fadlallah dragged her out the door, scared and impatient. He took nothing, he said, "except my soul."
The friends and their families joined the swelling migration on the perilous road to Tibnine. They passed villagers running with all they could carry packed into the sacks slung from weary shoulders. There was little fuel left for the cars that chugged past them, some with 12 people crammed inside.
Fadlallah and Samhat resigned themselves to a three-hour walk under a searing sun with just a plastic canteen of water to share. Then, just as they plodded out of Ainata, a flash of metallic green from the bottom of a bomb crater caught Fadlallah's eye. He jumped down and dug out a Yamaha motorbike with a bloodstained seat and a key still in the ignition. To the friends' surprise, it revved to life.
Fadlallah hopped onto the bike and Samhat perched behind him, adjusting her head scarf so that it wouldn't blow off in the wind. With no power at home, Fadlallah hadn't been able to use his electric razor in days; a fuzzy beard sprouted from his face. They laughed nervously at the sight they presented: veiled girl and bearded man zipping through southern Lebanon on a motorbike.
"We looked like resistance fighters!" Fadlallah said. "We just knew the Israelis would hit us."
"I was more scared about falling off," Samhat said. "Even in normal times, he's a crazy driver."
The ride took an hour and offered the friends a jarring view of what had happened to Lebanon during their weeks of isolation. Gaping holes in the earth had swallowed up cars and trucks. They veered through a maze of fallen electric wires and rubble-strewn streets. Stores where they'd shopped, restaurants where they'd dined were in shambles.
"I was stuck in my house for 20 days," Fadlallah said. "When I got out, I found the destruction of my country."
It's Samhat's country, too, though she was born in Michigan. Her father is a Lebanese-American who served four years as a U.S. Marine. Her family returned to their ancestral village in south Lebanon when she was 5. She still has traces of a Detroit accent and a slim blue U.S. passport, but her heart, she said, belongs to the dazed, parched villagers who swarmed the hospital in Tibnine.
The friends talked about using the bike to go back along the route and pick up elderly passengers, but hospital staff warned them it was too dangerous. Feeling guilty over what was technically theft, Fadlallah stashed the motorcycle behind a large generator and vowed he'd find the rightful owner once the war was over.
"Now you'll go back to America, I guess," Fadlallah told his friend, the sadness apparent in his voice. "Take me with you."
"Never!" Samhat said with a mischievous smile. "Well, maybe I have to. Who else is going to be my hero?"
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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