In the hills not far from the Blue Line, the demarcation line between Israel, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) armored vehicles patrolled nearly deserted roads — nothing worrying for the four old men who were sitting in a nearby café.
Only the constant hum of Israeli planes overhead serves as a reminder that this return to calm in the area may be short-lived.
For 48 days, villages on the Lebanese-Israeli border witnessed clashes between Hezbollah and Israel, which resulted in the killing of 13 civilians and 85 fighters within Hezbollah and its allies, and the displacement of around 50,000 people.
With the four-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which has been extended on Nov. 30 until Friday, the fighting appears to have also subsided on this side of the border — revealing the extent of destruction in South Lebanon.
‘Can’t you hear the drones? They’ll kill you’
In Tayr Harfa, death has left its mark. One user has already added a new landmark on Google Maps, “Farah Omar & Rabih Maamari Burning,” in reference to the site where the two Al-Mayadeen journalists were killed by an Israeli shell on Nov. 21.
On the site one can see a burnt-out camera, a shattered plastic chair, and roses lying on the grass where the shell hit. The property belongs to Diana Akil, who lives in Beirut.
“Like other journalists before them, they were covering the day's events here before heading to Naqoura,” Akil said.
With the temporary ceasefire, Akil decided to return to the south but without her children.“We don’t trust Israel,” she said. “I can sacrifice my life, but not that of my children.”
“They died as martyrs on my land,” she said, referring to the journalists, adding that this was where her family used to spend the weekend.
“We were happy. Now, this place makes our heart sink,” Mahmoud Akil, Diana’s husband, said.
A few kilometers away, in the small roads of Dhayra — a predominantly Sunni town — locals who had taken refuge in schools in Sour were coming back.
For them, the truce was hanging by a thread.
“Don’t go there, everything’s destroyed,” a teenager called out to his father. “It’s too dangerous; can’t you hear the drones? They’ll kill you.”
Army soldiers were deployed at the town’s intersection.
The surrounding field was littered with shells.
“Do you have authorization?” a man from his car asked L’Orient-Le Jour’s reporters. “I am a Hezbollah official here,” he said before driving on.
Nearby, the old rocks of a house were blackened by the flames.
“It's because of the phosphorus,” explained a resident who was present on site.
According to an Amnesty International report published at the end of October, the Israeli army used white phosphorus smoke artillery shells during its Oct. 16 attack on Dhayra. The report added that the attack must be investigated as a “war crime.”
Layale* burst into tears as she returned home.
“We have nothing left,” she said.
Her cousin, Adel*, said that Palestinian factions have infiltrated the village to attack Israel. “We're used to paying the price for the wars that don't concern us,” he said.
For Layale, Hezbollah is behind the townspeople’s suffering.
“What exactly has it [i.e.,Hezbollah] achieved by opening this front?” she said. “It’s not like they were going to save Gaza.”
“Massacres are happening every day,” she said. “Anyone who says they are not angry is a liar.”
Suddenly, sirens from across the border blared. A few seconds later, there was a sound of an explosion.
“We've got to get out of here,” shouted a man.
In the streets, cars sped off. Meanwhile, other residents looked on, choosing to continue sipping tea on their terraces.
It turned out that missiles from Israel’s Iron Dome exploded mid-air.
On the road to Sour, a car pulled over on the side of the road.
“Don’t film those who are fleeing,” the man who was driving told L’Orient-Le Jour. “It’s a bad image of the ‘Jnoub’ [the South].”
“I stayed here even though a house next to mine was hit," he said, stroking his daughter's head.
On the other side of the road, the one leading to the border, Emné* was heading with her two daughters toward Majdel Zoun in Sour district.
“Will they abide by the ceasefire?” she asked worryingly.
‘We are not even scared’
The following day, on the road to Qouzah, a few kilometers northeast of Dhayra, the remnants of what seems to have been some sort of warehouse are scattered along the side of a hill.
A few steps away, nearly concealed behind a fallen tree, a pick-up truck is destroyed.
Was it an improvised firing point? A target hit by mistake? It's impossible to know.
A little further south, near the town of Aita al-Shaab, a few shops have closed their doors.
Locals reiterate Hezbollah’s rhetoric of the need to open “a support front” for Hamas.
“We have to support the Palestinian resistance, otherwise we'll be next,” said a resident of this Hezbollah stronghold.
This is where it all began in 2006, when a Hezbollah commando attacked an Israeli convoy on July 12, killing eight soldiers and capturing two others.
Just a few steps away stands the family home of 67-year-old Rosa Srour, who refused to leave despite her frail health.
"I won't leave my house, even if it collapses on me,” she said. “This is our land. It's Israel attacking us.”
“This will end soon; I can feel it,” said Srour, whose house was razed to the ground during the 2006 July war.
She is convinced that if her village is targeted again, it's because Israel holds a grudge against her community.
“In 2006, we trampled them underfoot,” Srour said, referring to the fact that the village has never been taken by the Israeli army despite several assaults.
Over the past few weeks, Srour spent her time watering her plants and collecting shell remnants, which she stored in a cookie tin on display in the entrance hall.
When she ran out of medicine, she would order from the “shabeb” (young men) whom she refused to identify more precisely.
“We have heroes who defend our land,” she said, calling on those who sought refuge elsewhere and are back during ceasefire, not to leave again.
The Jawads, Srour’s neighbors, intend to leave as quickly as they arrived.
“I don't mind resisting, but we still need to be provided with the bare essentials,” said Hassan Jawad, whose house was shelled, causing the roof and a supporting wall to collapse.
Jawad returned with his children to attend the remembrance ceremony of a Hezbollah fighter, a distant cousin of the family.
The new ‘martyr’
Portraits of Youssef Jawad were adorning the streets — the new “hero,” the one who “died as a martyr on the road to Jerusalem,” just one day before the ceasefire went into effect.
“Israelis have even talked about him,” said one local proudly.
In the family room, beneath the portrait of a smiling Hassan Nasrallah, the bereaved mother had a sad look on her face.
Like all the other “martyrs,” he was entitled to his own statement, in which the party “celebrates with pride and glory” his sacrifice.
“I held on to him to stop him from leaving,” the mother said.
“He told us, 'if you stop me, it will be a sin.' So, I kept quiet; it was what he wanted,” she added, recalling how she held him in her arms one last time before he died. They were in Beirut.
On the way back, in the predominantly Christian town Ain Ibl, locals were leaving the church.
On Nov. 23, the town was hit for the first time by several rockets fired by Hezbollah [toward Israel], according to the mayor Imad Lallous.
“Who else but them is waging war?” said local resident Wadih Diab in reference to Hezbollah.
The apartments of his relatives, who live in Beirut, were damaged by a rocket. “I live right underneath,” he reported. That day, he was at home ten minutes before the strike.
“Everything has been destroyed. We could have been killed,” said another local, a father of a nine-month-old daughter, whom he sent to Beirut with his wife.
He does not want them to come back even if the hostilities are on hold right now.
"The country is at war, but it's only in the South that we can see this,” he said, “It's as if we were a different country.”
*First names have been changed.
This article was originally published by L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.