Mohamad Bazzi / Newsday & SF Chronicle – 2006-07-22 23:17:25
HARET HREIK, Lebanon (July 22, 2006) — The smell of dust and rubble wafts half a mile away. It is a mixture of pulverized concrete, electrical wiring and asbestos. It burns the eyes and throat. But the smell is only the first sign that something is terribly wrong, a prelude to the sights of devastation.
Last week, this was the most densely populated neighborhood in south Beirut, a crowded swath of apartment buildings known as the “Dahiya,” or the suburbs. It is the Shiite Muslim heartland, and the place from which Hezbollah draws its most loyal support.
Today, Haret Hreik has been demolished, as if visited by a cataclysmic earthquake. Everywhere there are mountains of rubble, great mounds of concrete blocks, twisted sheets of corrugated metal and spaghetti-shaped iron bars.
“You have to follow me,” shouted Hussein Naboulsi, a spokesman for Hezbollah. “Don’t just go any way you want. Follow me!”
Naboulsi was preparing to lead a group of journalists through Haret Hreik, and he did not want any stragglers. “If I tell you to evacuate, you must do it,” he shouted again, trying to outdo the cackle of microphones, tape recorders and cameras. “Now we must be quick.”
Approaching the intersection of Hadi Nasrallah Boulevard and Ghobeiry Square, everything was coated with a chalky gray dust.
Then the scope of devastation became clearer. Dozens of buildings have been reduced to chunks of concrete. Many others had sides sheared off, exposing their insides. Streets are piled with giant pieces of concrete, broken glass, and wooden beams from floors and ceilings. Wires are hanging everywhere.
On one street, a black, red and yellow flag still stretched between two buildings, framing a two-story pile of ruined homes. The German flag was likely hung a few weeks ago, when the Dahiya — along with the rest of Lebanon — was obsessed with soccer’s World Cup. Whole buildings were collapsed, their top stories pancaked, telescoping down into each other.
A cameraman tripped over a shirt, strangely untouched in the middle of the street. A Spanish TV anchor, doing a standup, tripped backward over a mattress.
Stray cats pick through the ruins. A beauty salon with its walls blasted off lies exposed, its mirrors fractured.
“I don’t recognize this area,” said a Lebanese journalist, shaking his head. “It’s beyond recognition. Beyond recognition.”
Amid the rubble, there were signs of the life that existed before July 12, when Israel and Hezbollah went to war: a red plastic rocking horse, strollers, tricycles, a stuffed brown teddy bear. There are dozens of burned photo albums, piles of CDs and books.
A wedding photo from the 1970s lay on the ground, blown out of its frame. It was surrounded by slippers, pillows, cinder blocks and radiators. In one corner, there’s an English textbook on diabetes.
Hezbollah members roamed the deserted streets on mopeds, weaving around the rubble. They were unshaven, with circles under their eyes.
Then, suddenly, a man emerged from the dark lobby of a building. He attracted the attention of the cameras.
“Let the entire Western world look and see the democracy of Israel and America,” he screamed, as cameras rolled and shutters clicked. “Let the world see and judge who is the terrorist, us or them? We’re protecting our homes. They’re attacking innocent people.”
The man, disheveled and sweaty, was wearing a torn white T-shirt. Asked for his name, he answered, “Just say a Lebanese citizen.” Later, he gave a first name: Mohammed. “My house is here,” he shouted, pointing to a building with its top floors flattened. “It was destroyed like everyone else’s.”
Does he still support Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah? He scoffed at the question. “I’ll rebuild my house one, two, three, five and 10 times if I have to, God willing,” he said. “My wife, my kids and I are with Sayyid Hassan until death.”
When the cameras moved on, he slipped into another building.
Near one pancaked building, a cell phone rang in the rubble. Naboulsi took note of it. “We just heard a phone ringing. Someone is calling someone. The battery is still alive,” he said. “Those who were able to leave this area, they left. Those who were not able to are probably still here under the rubble.”
As the tour wound down, Naboulsi became more defiant. “Israel will have to back down, or we will not surrender,” he said. “We defeated them before, and we will defeat them again.”
By this point, there were stragglers. They stood around in a daze until Hezbollah men with guns started shouting: “Let’s go! Let’s go! The Israeli planes are coming back.”
On one corner, surrounded by wires and rubble, a blue metal box attached to a large sign was still standing. The box, framed by two yellow hands, was intended to collect coins for Hezbollah’s network of charities, schools and hospitals.
“Charity keeps away catastrophe,” it said.
The box survived the bombing; everything around it did not.
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