AABBASSIYE, Israeli Occupied Lebanon – At sunset, a speaker belches rock music over the heads of the Israeli troops. A chicken squawks as it flutters and scrambles up the sloping front of a halftrack.
A couple of soldiers have commandeered lawn chairs. They sit reading the Hebrew newspapers. Another pulls wheelies on the dirt and stones with a chopper-model bicycle found in a wrecked house.
The town is empty – destroyed.
All but a few of the houses that held 7,000 Lebanese Muslims have been damaged by shells or fires. Most are just hulks of broken cement with twisted walls held together by their steel reinforcing wires or low square shells holding the wreckage of their roofs and upper stories.
The Israeli army has put Aabbassiye off limits to the press. The soldiers here say they don't know why; maybe because there are hidden bombs or booby traps in the houses.
Hussein Ajami, one of 300 residents who remain, says it may be because of the 150 townspeople killed by bombs and machine-gun fire. That is, the 150 that he says he saw and helped bury. "More, maybe," says Ajami, 26, "but the rest are under the houses and we can't pick them. We have no machines."
The battle is over, everybody knows. The first United Nations troops have entered the south.
The battle is over, and yet...
Ajami will not pause in the street at the top of the hill. "Here, you are a target," he says.
A target for whom?
"Who knows?" Ajami says, and eases his car down the rutted, broken road.
The battle is over, and yet…
The sun has disappeared from the neat, terraced fields drawn up the hill past the first few houses, like a comforter on the feet of Aabbassiye. But the center of town, near the top of the hill, is still suffused in angry orange. It is fire devouring the house of a man who aided the Fatah guerrillas. The air is filled with crackles and booms as flames find the bullets and grenades inside.
The battle is over, and yet...
In the Israeli camp, the evening rings with the loud laughter of men who must employ either joy or fear against the gathering darkness in a strange and hostile place. There is swagger in their walks. These are the soldiers who conquered southern Lebanon in six days.
One soldier edges away from the group around his armored van. He peers in the window of a car.
"You're going back to Israel?" he asks. "Would you call my mother?"
Carefully, he writes down his name and phone number on a scrap of paper.
Another soldier sidles over to the car. Then another. Then two more. As they bend close to write clearly in the gloom, their faces in the window show that they are very young.
"Nineteen in five days," says the first, preparing for a birthday in an occupied land. "Don't forget. Mrs. Sharabi. Just tell her you have seen me and I am still all right...
"Just tell her I am all right. And tell her I have good appetite."
The battle in south Lebanon is over, but in these hills the end of a conflict means only a pause in the killing, a change in the soldiers, a chance to loot.
It does not mean an end to the fear or the sorrow that are as ready at hand here as oranges.
It does not mean there is joy in the hearts of the victors, or even much relief. And there is no relief at all for the southern Lebanese, who were hosts to this vicious little war through no invitation of their own.
The hills here have not been free of bloodshed since the Lebanese civil war was imported from Beirut in 1975.
That war was stopped, north of the Litani River, in 1976. But the Fatah guerrillas were allowed to roam unchecked in the south. Their war against the militia of the right-wing Christian Phalangists continued uninterrupted.
Hundreds of civilians, perhaps thousands, died in the Israeli army's pushbutton advance.
Behind the Israelis, the Phalangists rolled into Muslim towns, riding British tanks the Israelis had given them and Jeep station wagons they had stolen from unarmed United Nations observers. Houses and shops that lay vacant and open were looted of valuables and burned.
The army that will stay here – the U.N. force to keep the peace – is regarded by all as too weak. It is too weak, say the Israelis, to prevent attacks on Israeli towns to the south; too weak, say Lebanese Muslims, to prevent the Phalangists from further murders and looting; too weak, say the Phalangists, to prevent the Palestinians from returning to the south to take their revenge.
But the army that is leaving – the Israeli fighting machine – may have been too strong. The south is destroyed, though the commandos escaped. It is as though the Israelis had tried to swat flies with a bludgeon, and missed.
Soon the signs in Hebrew will be gone. The children who yell "shalom" and sell tax-free cigarets to troops will go to the fields. But the fears in the south have only increased, along with the hunger, homelessness and anger.
Now the Israelis have pushed the Fatah north again. In the process, the towns of south Lebanon have been ravaged.
In Bint Jbeil these days are houses with the sky showing through the walls. A heap of 50 burned and twisted cars lies at the junction outside town.
Three old women are the only residents in sight.
Hajaeidi Salch, 87, shows her kitchen, where the walls were blown off by an Israeli shell, and the rest of her house, which the Phalangists ripped through, shredding or breaking that which they did not steal.
The old woman is crying and talking at the same time. She opens empty jewelry boxes and holds up shards of fine cloth, babbling an inventory of possessions that only she knows.
Finally, there are only tears. Then she raises her head. "Don't you have any food?" she says. "We have been three days without food."
On the street, Lt. Ariel Vago, 22, a Hebrew University law student when he isn't soldiering, stops his Jeep.
"I know it looks like Israeli soldiers did it, but it isn't that way," he says. "We sort of don't need their televisions, you know?
"The Phalangists started pouring in here by the hundreds, with trucks and everything, and it's sort of hard to stop them," he says. "I mean, we have a roadblock up there and we're trying to stop them, but I can understand it. We found some Fatah mortars and bazookas here, and they've been shelling Ein Ebel (a Phalangist town) for two years. So there's a score to settle.
"Come on, I'll show you where we can get her some food," the Israeli says of the aged Arab, and he steers his Jeep through the wreckage to a house down the hill.
The house has a hammer and sickle painted on one wall. Vago shoulders his M-16 and kicks open the door. Inside, blanket rolls are strewn on the floors of two rooms. A tray holds glasses of tea the commandos didn't have time to drink when they ran away.
"This is the headquarters of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the most radical Palestinian group)," Vago says. "No, we didn't get them. They all ran away."
A small room on the left holds boxes of Soviet and American machine-gun bullets. Rumanian booby-trap mines, American 75-mm. shells.
A larger room holds stacks of canned goods - Bulgarian tomato juice, corned mutton from the People's Republic of China, beans from Beirut - and nearly half a ton of rice in 50-pound sacks marked, "Fribrice ... U.S. Long Grain Rice … Product of U.S.A."
'They get it from the U.N. food for the refugee children," Vago says. "They had a thousand ways of dying, but they couldn't starve here. They had better foods than we do."
The PFLP house is almost intact.
But soon it will be blown up by the Israelis, one solid structure less in Bint Jbeil, where there are so few.
"Don't think of it like that," Vago says. "Think of it that you are a guy and you know that your house is going to be blown up if you let in terrorists. You'll think twice.
"That's what happened. The people, if they stayed, were not touched. Nothing was touched. But the people who have fled are the people who have something to hide."
He is asked about the blasted house of Hajaeidi Saleh, for whom he is foraging food.
"Well, that's possible,' he says. "We didn't know where they would fire from when we came in, so what we did was put tanks up in front when we came around the bend from the top of the hill and we were firing at wherever we thought they'd fire from."
On the street, Hussein Turfi, 78, comes running to beg some food too. His house also has been bombed, then looted. Turfi carries an American flag with 48 stars – a souvenir of his stay in Detroit 40 years ago – which he holds in front of his body as if it were a protective shibboleth.
His brother, Musa Turfi, 75, says Israeli soldiers kicked in his door and shot his wife and son who were lying on their beds.
"They killed them without shame," says Musa Turfi. "Right here, the first night. I was there, below the stairs. I saw it. They never even got up. I showed myself and said, 'If you want to kill me too, then kill me.' Then, they ran out."
Vago is angry now. "If it's Tuesday night that he says, the old one is lying like a goat, because I was in the first armored car coming in from Maroun el Ras and we didn't touch this town until noon Wednesday."
Turfi's house is searched. The staircase yields shells from an American M-16, the standard automatic rifle of the Israeli Army.
"Look," Vago says, "nobody claimed that civilians were not killed here. Only that they were not killed on purpose. But if it's a matter of getting an Israeli soldier wounded or killing a civilian, I'd rather kill a civilian. Better to be on the safe side. We cannot risk soldiers knocking on every door and saying, 'Excuse me, but are you a terrorist or just an innocent civilian?' You would do the same."
A rumbling noise moves up the hill. The little group at Turfi's house turns to watch 10 U.N. cars pounding through the town on their way to the Litani.
"No. I'm not glad to see them," Vago says. "They're not here to fight. They're not supposed to fight. It's not their job to fight, and they're not going to help us.
"The terrorists will come back in again to attack, and the U.N. will report it, but reporting will not stop murders."
And the counterattacks?
"No. Their job is not to report counterattacks," he says. "Counterattacks are legitimate."
After the U.N. cars comes another, a Wagoneer, identical except for a coat of grey paint that disguises somewhat the markings of the earlier U.N. force from which it was stolen. The roof is still white, with clear U.N. markings.
Two Phalangists are in the front seat. A visitor reaches into the back under a stack of confiscated leftist posters, to pull out folded bluejean suits, still on hangers, with the store price tags attached.
"Hey," says one of the Phalangists. "Don't worry, we're with an Israeli captain."
The captain is summoned. "No," he says, "we're not permitting them to loot. They're collecting documents and weaponry for us."
He is shown the stolen clothes.
"That's only small stuff," he says.
Vago tries to intercede. "You can't let them steal," he says. "In a month or two we may need help from these villagers."
The Israeli captain tells the Israeli lieutenant to procreate off, and the Wagoneer moves on through town.
"It's hard," 'ago says. "They (the Phalangists) are supposed to be our friends, so we cannot be too hard." He climbs into his own Jeep. As he leaves, a fight is breaking out between the old woman and the old men for the food.
Farther north in Tebnine, where a few hundred of the 5,000 residents remain, Mutsafa Fouaz, a young man just returned from Beirut, shows a house that was looted 20 minutes earlier.
"It was Israeli trucks," he says, "but the soldiers, we cannot be sure whether they were Israeli or Phalange from Ein Ebel.
"Their leaders come and they want us to be friends," he says. "Then their soldiers come and steal from us."
Farther north on the road, an overturned crane has stopped the cars and half-tracks. Stalled in one command car are the Israeli chief of staff, Mordecai Gur, and his entourage.
Gur is rosy-cheeked, fit and pleased.
"General, do you trust the U.N. to keep..."
"I trust you, you trust me," Gur breaks in, "so what's the problem?" He chuckles. His aides chuckle.
Gur says he knows that the Phalangists are looting: "Yes, we gave orders that it stop and I hope today we will take out all of our units from the villages so the people can return… It's quite difficult to educate these people in a couple of days."
The army has opened a dirt side road that detours around the overturned crane.
Gur's cars start up the detour, change course and veer directly across someone's fields. The Wagoneers churn up the young crops behind them. Some soldiers run over to destroy a stone fence to let the general through.
In the afternoon sunlight, six Israelis are lying in a field near Tyre, munching on bread and cooking tomatoes from a tin.
Here, in the quiet, the war stories are growing. A small, black-haired soldier, wearing too-large fatigues, says three terrorists were just captured. The story implies that he had something to do with it.
"They're being investigated by the high command. They'll be dead soon," he says.
"We don't want lo take them as prisoners because it's bad for us. One year or two years later, somebody comes to Israel and takes a plane to get them out of jail.
"You see that gun, the big one?" he says, pointing to a halftrack in a field.
"Before, one week from today, I killed with this gun. You see the big one? I killed three with this gun. It's (105-mm) – very big. From seven meters. It's too close," and he giggles.
"It was really, you know, something big. In the movies, even, it's not like that. You shoot here," he says, pointing to the back of his own bent head, "and it comes out here, and everything with it, and the head opens from two ways, and the feet were alone, away from the body. It was really something beautiful, to make pictures or something…"
"No," he says, "I didn't have a camera. I wish I did, to show my parents. I wish I could kill more, just to kill Fatah."
He is asked how he knows who is Fatah and who is not.
"The Fatah have guns," he says.
Later, he tells the same story, unbidden. The effect of the bullets is still there, in grisly detail, but this time it's his friends who did the shooting.
"No," he says, "it was my friends, I told you. I shot at one, though. Hey, if you want to see a couple of dead terrorists, look over there in the ditch."
In a ditch, by a shot-up old Dodge pickup, the forms of two men lie under a thin layer of dirt. The first is face down, wearing double-knit, gray trousers and a blue sweater. Small, shrunken hands, already rotting, are clenched into fists around the dirt. Flies buzz around them, and around his black high-heeled shoes.
The second man lies face up, beneath a thinner film of dirt. His nose sticks up, uncovered, and upper teeth, brown with dust, seem to snarl through the dirt at the sky. The flies are working harder on the second one. His feet are shod in brown slippers of soft wool carpeting.
There is no sign that either was a fighter. The truck looks like a farm vehicle. Fatah do not usually fight in carpet slippers. They tend to prefer boots.
There is no way to tell now. No one really cares. The Israeli trucks and tanks pass by without stopping. The flies rise with the rubble of the earth, then a new layer of filth and the flies settle on the two men again.
The sunset is welcome as it arrives. Darkness hides the scars. In the moonlight, the corpses and the wrecked houses are blurs on the gentle roll of the horizon.
For the soldiers who remain, the fall of darkness means only the return of the time to laugh in the face of the fear that the trees hide a thousand gunners. In the Israeli camps, there is no elation at being part of a victorious army.
Even on the long road back from Aabbassiye, from Tebnine and Bint Jbeil, on the long road south in the darkened convoys heading home, there is more weariness and disgust than joy.
A jeep driver is asked what town that is, burning on the horizon. "Don't ask," he says. "Too many towns. I don't know. I don't know."