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PULLOUT FROM LEBANON

Thousands Flock South to a 'Liberated' Town to Gawk and Exult

Reaction: 'We really can't believe it,' says one visitor to area accessible after two decades. 'We have been waiting for this land, and not for a short while.'

May 24, 2000|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAQOURA, Lebanon — For tens of thousands of Lebanese, it was a chance to pass through a gate that had been locked, to see the land and breathe the air that was forbidden to them for as long as most could remember.

The news that the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon was collapsing set off a happy stampede Tuesday to the area. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to witness and experience the first day of "liberation."

And so there was a palpable sense of excitement as the traffic streamed southward from Beirut along the Mediterranean. Past Sidon, where a few years ago Israeli gunboats had cut the highway with their rocket attacks. Across the Litani River, a slow-moving green snake that once had been the frontier of the Israeli occupation zone. And then through Tyre, an ancient seaside city whose fishermen consider it a galling fact of life to be stopped and interrogated by Israeli naval patrols.

Finally, the long line of autos, trucks and motorbikes--some flying the yellow standard of the Hezbollah guerrilla movement and others with the red-and-green banners of Hezbollah's rival, Amal--rattled over gravel through the lush lemon and banana groves that had been a dangerous no man's land just 24 hours earlier.

Smiling Fijian peacekeepers waved the traffic past a sandbagged U.N. checkpoint and flashed a V-for-victory sign to the passersby, who responded in kind. "We have done our part over the past 22 years," explained one of the Fijians, a sergeant in a blue beret who asked that his name not be used. "We tried our best to give them peace."

Beyond the U.N. base, the Lebanese army had set up a checkpoint. And then, in the distance, appeared Naqoura, the southernmost Lebanese town on the coast.

Here people stopped their cars and got out to walk around. Many swarmed over an abandoned military outpost of the pro-Israeli militia, the South Lebanon Army. The militiamen had surrendered to Hezbollah earlier in the day, turning over Israeli-made rifles and about 20 tanks.

Children raced into the concrete-block gun positions and explored the narrow, walled trenches that were built so SLA soldiers could move around the edges of the compound safely. Adults scoured the debris-strewn ground for souvenirs.

An Amal fighter, who identified himself only as Abdullah, was prowling the outpost with a professional's eye. He said the position had been an important one for the SLA, right on the front line of the confrontation. "Many times they were shooting from here at us," he said.

"We really can't believe it," said Mahmoud Jamal of Tyre. "We have been waiting for this land, and not for a short while."

Although he has lived all his life about 10 miles away, the 30-year-old Jamal had never been to this spot while it was occupied by the Israelis. When he heard that it was safe, he said, he raced here with two friends. "I really do not know this area at all. I just wanted to see it."

As Jamal spoke, Hezbollah soldiers were setting dynamite to blow up an abandoned Israeli military position perched nearby on the craggy rocks that jut into the Mediterranean.

The explosion sent a huge boulder crashing down onto the road that hugs the cliff. A short while later, a bulldozer from Hezbollah's Jihad (Holy War) Construction detachment tooled by to clear the obstruction.

Although the Israelis and their Lebanese allies had clearly abandoned the picturesque Mediterranean coastline, farther to the east the lines remained uncertain.

Near Nabatiyeh, the largest Lebanese town facing the Israelis in the central part of southern Lebanon, residents were waiting expectantly for the news that the occupiers were really gone from twin fortresses overlooking their town.

"I am happy but afraid," said Sattam abu Zeid, mayor of Kfar Roummane, a nearby town. "People are afraid here, because the planes are still circling above us; if you listen you can hear them. There are still rockets and bombs. And we don't know about land mines."

Abu Zeid said he had lost his mother and sister to Israeli shelling. "A shell could fall on us right now. You never know."

The 46-year-old mayor said he doubted that Americans have any idea how the Lebanese of the south feel. "We were like strangers in our own country," he mused. "We could not live because we weren't free, and now we will be."

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