HOULA, Lebanon — Ali Kameel Yaaqoub stood in his bare feet, his eyes shut tight, his heart pounding, his children's screams still in the air. Someone had just blown up his car, showering his sons with glass and shrapnel as they slept in their first-floor bedroom.
Yaaqoub knew that such an attack was only a matter of time, because he was suspected of having collaborated with the Israeli forces that had occupied this area for 22 years. Beneath a rock near the smoldering wreck of his vehicle, he found a note threatening him with death.
"It was miraculous we all survived the explosion," Yaaqoub said a few days later as he planted tobacco shoots on a patch of rented land. "I have lived here all my life. I cannot leave this region."
So Yaaqoub tries to act as if nothing happened. He spends each day working the rich, brown farmland, but his calm demeanor, like the calm that has settled over most of southern Lebanon, goes no deeper than the roots of his fragile seedlings.
Last May 24, Israeli forces left this region, more than two decades after they blasted their way across the border. Liberated southern Lebanon remains a troubled land, its people's dreams of economic, social and political resurrection unrealized. If anything, living standards have worsened. Many villages still have to truck in water. There is still no telephone network, and electricity is often sporadic. Raw sewage runs into streams and rivers. Health care and jobs are limited, in some places nonexistent. The ground itself is dangerous, with 130,000 land mines still active.
Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that few of those who fled the occupation have returned.
On top of all that, southern Lebanon faces the release from prison of hundreds of local residents who once served in the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army or the Israeli-appointed civil administration. There is a growing fear that their return could be the spark that sets off a new wave of violence. Already, leaflets distributed in the streets promise "the most cruel kind of revenge."
"Collaborators, traitors, baboons and pigs, you must leave our land," reads a flier circulated by a group that calls itself Revolutionary Cells for Justice Against Collaborators. "You have no place among us. The enemy still flows in your veins." More than a dozen cars and at least one store have been blown up since the beginning of the year.
The escalation, downplayed by the central government in Beirut, has sent a chill through the local population, because almost everyone has at least one relative who worked for the Israelis. "We dreamed of the liberation so we could stop worrying about explosions," said Mohammed Rizk, 45, director of the agricultural cooperative in this village. "We are so afraid."
Houla is a stronghold of the Islamic militia Hezbollah, or Party of God. At the entrance to the village, a larger-than-life cutout of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late supreme leader of Iran, sits atop a rusty tank. Flags declaring "Hezbollah will be victorious" line the dusty street.
Before Israel occupied the village, there were more than 12,000 residents; today, about 1,500 live here. There is no doctor, so when 76-year-old Zeinab Mustafa fell down and broke her right arm, the villager who works on sheep and cows set it. When she tripped and broke her left arm, the pain was so great that she asked a neighbor to drive her to see a real doctor an hour away. "Nothing has really changed here," she said.
Jobs are few. The village supports itself by growing tobacco and olives. But the low price for tobacco has made it difficult for farmers even to cover their costs.
Stretching from the Mediterranean to the foothills of Mt. Hermon, southern Lebanon was a poor, multiethnic agricultural region with a population of about 300,000 when the Palestine Liberation Organization set up shop in the 1970s. "Back then it was little Palestine," said Timur Goksel, a senior advisor to U.N. forces in the south. "There was no south Lebanon. The PLO controlled everything."
The PLO took advantage of Lebanon's open frontier to attack Israel, and the Jewish state crossed the border in 1978, leaving homes destroyed and refugees fleeing before it withdrew. Israel returned in 1982 and stayed put, determined to liquidate the PLO in Lebanon.
More than two-thirds of the population departed, leaving just 77,000 people in the occupied zone where Israel had captured 114 villages. The Jewish state created what it called a security buffer and established a new militia and civil administration, pressuring locals to join. They were later branded as collaborators with a brutal regime that often subjected the Lebanese to humiliating searches and interrogations.