The New York Times

August 25, 2006

South Lebanon

At Funeral, a Sunni Village Condemns Hezbollah’s Presence


MARWAHEEN, Lebanon, Aug. 24 — For months, the residents of this predominantly Sunni village near the Israeli border watched anxiously as the Shiite Hezbollah militiamen brought arms and rockets into town in preparation for battle. The residents grappled with whether they should accept the fighters’ presence and face a possible Israeli attack or try to eject them, with the more probable risk of retribution by Hezbollah.

On Thursday, as the village buried 23 people who were killed by Israeli warplanes while trying to flee on July 15, many had belatedly made up their mind.

“We kept beseeching them, ‘Stay out! Stay out!’ ” said Zainab Ali Abdullah, 19, who lost her father, brother and several other members of the family in the attack. “They said, ‘We’re all in the same boat together, so deal with it.’ But why should our children die for their cause?”

Hundreds of people gathered here on Thursday to lay to rest the last bodies that had been left at a temporary mass grave in Tyre, burying them in a grave site on the edge of a tobacco field overlooking a valley in an emotional ceremony that brought much-needed closure to the town’s ordeal. The bodies had languished in the temporary grave for more than a week after the cease-fire, until the residents decided it was safe to return.

For many, the gathering on Thursday also became a chance to air grievances against Hezbollah, whom they blame for having brought trouble to their quiet community.

Criticism of Hezbollah is rare in southern Lebanon, where the group exercises significant influence and economic power. Villages like Marwaheen — which largely supports the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — often miss out on Hezbollah’s largess but pay the price for its politics.

“There is no way for us to stop them,” said Ibrahim, who lost several relatives in the attack and who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution. “These are not people you can say no to.”

On July 15, Israeli loudspeakers across the border warned villagers to evacuate after Hezbollah began firing rockets into northern Israel from near the town. The families gathered in the center of the village and then went to a nearby United Nations base for shelter, but, they said, they were turned away. Many returned to the village, but one group, including Ms. Abdullah, drove in two cars in the direction of Tyre, a larger coastal town that they hoped would be safer.

About five miles away, one of the vehicles broke down, Ms. Abdullah said, and was soon struck by a shell from an Israeli gunboat. Israeli helicopters then fired rockets at both cars and continued with machine gun fire, she said. Only four people survived the attack, she said, including herself, her niece Lara, who lost her entire family, and two neighbors.

Ms. Abdullah said she walked with shrapnel wounds in her leg and stomach for an hour and a half to get help.

The town’s troubles began sometime last year when a local resident who had converted to Shiism was appointed the local representative of Hezbollah, residents said. Soon strange things began to occur: strangers came through for late-night meetings; trucks would come and go in the middle of the night; and a suspicious-looking white van was parked at each end of the village.

When the war broke out, rockets flew out of the village and a hilltop nearby, and the fears of many residents that trouble would come grew stronger.

On Thursday, one of the suspicious white vans was sitting next to the town mosque. The van had apparently been hit by an Israeli missile, but the launching platform for a Katyusha rocket could still be seen inside. A rocket that lay next to the van a few days earlier had been removed.

Elsewhere, villagers showed off a weapons dump that included heavy machine guns, mortar rockets and launchers, and numerous other rockets left behind. Part of the weapons store had been bombed, but a much larger store down the street was intact.

Residents said Hezbollah was using them as human shields. “One man in this village was able to turn all our lives upside down for just a bit of money,” Ibrahim said. When the villagers left, he said, the fighters did too, as evidenced by the limited damage done to the town.

“We want the army and the United Nations to come in here and protect us,” he said. “Israel is our enemy, but the problem is that Hezbollah gave them an excuse to come in and kill our children.”

In an emotional two-hour burial, a train of ambulances carrying the bodies drove into town with sirens blaring and recitation from the Koran playing over loudspeakers. Survivors ran to the vehicles.

“That was my dad,” Ms. Abdullah said pointing at a poster on a wall in town depicting her family members who were killed. “That was my brother, and that is his family. I wish God had taken me with them.”

Ms. Abdullah stood outside as the coffins were carried to a makeshift staging ground for the burials, waving farewell to each body as it was carried past.

“Farewell, father,” she cried as his coffin moved past, fighting off her cousins who tried to hold her back. “Farewell, brother, I will miss you.”