Hizbollah bury their unseen dead

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The Independent Online
THE GAUZE across 'Shaheed's' stomach was stained bright pink. Two bandages criss-crossed his face where blood flowed from a tube in his nostrils. 'Intestinal wounds and shrapnel wounds in the stomach,' the doctor muttered as the 16-year-old Hizbollah guerrilla told his story. At least 26 of his comrades had just been buried. 'Our guards heard the Israeli planes coming,' he said. 'We were dispersed but then the helicopters came shining searchlights over the ground and I tried to hide behind a rock. But I must have been still visible because they fired at me. I heard the bullets but felt no pain. I ran a little way but then collapsed.' On the other side of the ward at the Imam Khomeini Hospital, 21-year-old 'Jawad' - the Hizbollah will give only noms-de- guerre - was wounded in the right hand and legs. Death brushed him even more closely. 'We were asleep in our tents,' he said. 'We were woken by the sound of the helicopter guns firing - Apache helicopters, American-made - but we were still inside the tents. Suddenly two rockets were fired at us. I and two comrades were hit, - five of my other comrades were killed by those rockets. It went on for 20 minutes and then fighter- planes attacked us.'

The thousands of chanting men and weeping women who attended the funeral of six of the Hizbollah victims in Baalbek were unable to view the remains; the local Hizbollah television station showed them why. Many of the dead were decapitated or cut in half by Israeli cannon fire. Survivors told the same story; of running wounded through the night, to be hunted down one by one under the beam of rocket-firing helicopters. If those who live by the sword die by the sword, it was a biblical maxim that held little resonance for the Shia Muslims of Baalbek yesterday.

The coffins were wrapped in bright red cloth, the name of each victim attached to one end, carried through the streets, showered with roses and carnations. The banners bore that curious combination of mourning and joy with which Shias often greet death. One congratulated the dead on their arrival in paradise. 'We thank God,' read another, 'who has honoured us with these martyrs'. The thunder of thousands of fists on chests, the Hizbollah's ritual drumbeat of anger, thumped down narrow laneways where the guerrilla movement's outside broadcast cameras beamed the event to Shia villages around Baalbek.

In the town square, Lebanese policemen peered through their iron-grilled windows as the coffins were paraded through the crowds outside. A tiny Lebanese flag on the roof was dwarfed by huge yellow Hizbollah banners. Not once did the chanting mourners or the prayer leader - Sheikh Mohamed Yazbek, the Hizbollah leader in Baalbek - mention the name of their country. God, not Lebanon, was what they were supposed to be thinking about. Turbans moved among the mass of bearded men and fighters. There were a few guns, too, in a city that is still not under full government control.

Among the prelates was Hussein Moussawi, leader of the Islamic Amal Hizbollah faction, thin-faced and grey-bearded, watching the guerrillas staggering under the weight of the coffins. We followed him afterwards, back to his high-ceilinged office, a weather-vane of Hizbollah sentiment surrounded by village Imams. What would be Hizbollah's reaction to Thursday morning's Israeli air raid, we asked him, after the death of 26 guerrillas - or 'in the region' of 26, as Mr Moussawi intriguingly remarked. 'This Israeli action was carried out to heat up the situation,' he said. '. . . Of course, we expect 'actions' (by Muslims) in the region and also maybe in Europe and in America. But I am not privy to any particulars about this . . . ' He called the Israeli attack a 'massacre', weirdly insisting that the Hizbollah camp was 'like a school camp'.

Greeted with unconcealed delight in Israel, where the night- time assault was regarded as a 'victory over terrorism', the Israeli air raid has shifted public opinion in Baalbek in the other direction. Many among the 200,000 population are not supporters of the Hizbollah; perhaps only 5,000 people attended the funeral yesterday. 'Some of the dead were local boys and people were enraged at the way those helicopters went around picking them off,' a Baalbek merchant - no Hizbollah apologist - said. 'Many people avoided the funeral because they feared the Israelis would bomb it. You must realise the Hizbollah are not unpopular here - they've built hospitals and done a lot for the poor when the government didn't care about Baalbek. But in the last two months, Lebanese soldiers and policemen have been back on the streets and 10 Hizbollah members were arrested. Now the air raid has strengthened Hizbollah's grip here because they can claim the government is powerless against the Israelis. This is all very bad for our town.'