The Shi'ite-dominated regions of southern Lebanon and south Beirut have been heavily bombed by Israeli jets. On Thursday afternoon, VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough joined other journalists on a tour of one demolished southern suburb, led by the spokesman from Hezbollah.
"Just listen to me! OK, now we are organizing a tour. The situation, luckily it's calm right now, but we have to do it very fast. We have to move very quickly. You have to listen to me, to my order. If I tell you to evacuate, that means you have to evacuate right now. The security guys are with us. I'm gonna speak to you. You have to follow me...," he said.
Not many tour guides start off with warnings like that. But Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Nabolsi is not your normal tour guide.
He led 30 or 40 journalists on a tour of the shattered neighborhood of Haret Hriek in Beirut's southern suburbs.
We walked through nearly impassable streets choked with rubble, twisted metal and the remains of shattered lives. A child's teddy bear lay twisted on the ground. There were photo albums crumpled in the dust, filled with pictures of weddings, birthdays, visits from relatives.
All around us were piles of rubble where buildings used to be, now crushed beyond recognition. Black smoke was still rising from some of the sites, and the air was thick with the acrid odor of explosives.
Some kind of alarm warbled feebly from one of the piles that used to be an apartment building.
This is the neighborhood where Hezbollah's headquarters were located, and the studios for its television and radio stations. This is where Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah lived. None of those buildings are standing anymore. And along with those targets, Israeli bombs destroyed most of the neighborhood.
The reporters peppered Hezbollah's spokesman with tough questions about whether the group's own actions had brought this fate upon the neighborhood and the country. Hussein Nabolsi was agitated, shouting back his answers and waving at the whole-scale destruction around them.
MALE REPORTER: "So you're saying that the Israeli charge that Hezbollah uses civilians as a shield to conduct their own activities, you're saying that that's wrong."
NABOLSI: "The Israelis always invent a pretext to take action. In 1982 when they invaded Lebanon..."
When asked whether there were military targets in the neighborhood, Nabolsi gave this response. "You came from the moon? We live in Lebanon! This is Lebanon. This is our land. This is our area. This is where we live," he said.
The tour of the shattered landscape got more surreal with every step, and the spokesman tried to stay on message. "All our actions are a reaction for Israeli attacks. We have never initiated any attacks against Israel. It's all a reaction, defending ourselves. This is war," he said.
But Hezbollah did cross the border into Israel more than a week ago and capture two Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah has continued to fire rockets into northern Israel, killing at least 29 people. More than 300 Lebanese have died in the Israeli attacks. A few minutes after denying that his group has initiated attacks, Nabolsi denied Israeli claims that the air strikes have destroyed more than half of Hezbollah's arsenal. He vowed to keep attacking. "And now we launch more attacks, we launch more rockets into Israeli military targets inside Israel. That means our military capability is getting stronger and stronger. Whatever they do to block the way, or if they think that our rocket arsenal, we run out of the rockets, they are completely mistaken. We are going to continue our battle. We are going to continue to defend our land until the last day of our lives," he said.
That is the standard Hezbollah line, that the group is defending Lebanon.
But walking through the blasted streets of Haret Hriek, Lebanon does not look very defended. This is not a neighborhood anymore. There are some buildings still standing, but nothing is undamaged.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Thursday condemned Hezbollah's kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers, and its continued rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. But he also said that the Israeli response has been disproportionate, calling it "excessive use of force."
Hezbollah has been blocking most residents from returning to the southern suburbs. The journalist tour was only possible because over the last few days, the number of air strikes has slacked off in South Beirut during the daytime. In the evenings, when the cruise ships evacuating foreigners are gone, the blasts again echo through the city.
It is not clear whether the break in shelling is because of the evacuations going on at the port a few kilometers away, or because there is simply not much left to hit.
In contrast to the first few days of air strikes, there have been relatively few casualties in south Beirut in recent days because the southern suburbs are all but abandoned. Their residents have fled to the mountains, or to sleep in schoolrooms in other parts of town.
On the fringes of the neighborhood, a man and a woman parked their car outside an apartment building and dashed inside, probably retrieving a few belongings before heading back out to relative safety.