The recent fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants devastated large areas of Lebanon. For the past month, VOA correspondent Margaret Besheer has been reporting on the conflict and the impact it has had on the Lebanese people. In this reporter's notebook, she shares impressions from her first visit to some of the towns in south Lebanon that were at the heart of the fighting, starting from the southern coastal city of Tyre.
My route took me southeast through Qana to Bint Jbeil, and ended in Maroun al Ras, very close to the southern border with Israel.
More than a month of air strikes and ground fighting has left these villages looking like an earthquake zone. The scene is much the same in village after village: houses and shops collapsed like a stack of pancakes, with twisted steel rods protruding from the rubble like the tentacles of an octopus. The olive trees that are so prevalent in this part of the country are coated in white dust that looks like a strange snow.
At Qana, a makeshift cemetery holds the remains of 27 people, mostly women and children, who were killed in the basement of a house during an Israeli air strike. Their graves are marked with wooden signs that bear the pictures of many smiling children.
A man named Mohammed, who is wearing a baseball hat with the Hezbollah logo on it, says somberly that many residents have not come back.
Passing among the towns, I see a new site in south Lebanon: Lebanese soldiers. It is the first time the army has been deployed in this area in more than 30 years. But at every checkpoint, the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah flies next to the flag of the Lebanese state.
At the town of Siddiqine, where there is hardly a house still standing on the main road, I find Abdullah Balhas and some of his friends.
He says he does not mind that the army is here, but he says Hezbollah is also still present, and he is one of them. He adds that he has put away his gun, but will get it out again, if the Israelis return.
On the outskirts of Siddiqine, children are chasing after the ice cream truck, as it bounces along the broken roads. For them, at least one summer pleasure has returned.
At Bint Jbeil, residents are out in force trying to clean up the crumbled concrete that used to be their town. It is a monumental task. The main market was destroyed, as were many homes. Bint Jbeil's two schools were both badly damaged. The façade of one has been completely sheared off, giving it the appearance of a doll's house displaying the children's desks. The start of the school year has been delayed until October, but it is not clear yet what exactly will be used as a school building.
Walking down the street, I nearly trip over the remnant of an Israeli missile lying on the sidewalk. It is not the only one I come across this day.
Arriving to Maroun al Ras, I am struck by how quiet it is. There are no people, no animals, not even a bird. In a word, there is no life.
But despite the devastation, south Lebanon's beauty shines through. There are rolling hills with sweeping vistas of olive and citrus orchards, crowned by a perfect blue sky. Closer to Tyre, over the top of the hills, the Mediterranean shimmers in the distance. I begin to understand why the residents of the south rushed home as soon as the fighting stopped.