The orders from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were very clear, but militia commander Suliman couldn't carry them out this time. The head of the Shiite extremist group told his fighters by radio on Saturday that as part of the cease-fire agreement starting this week they were to switch from military camouflage to civilian clothing. Suliman would have gladly obeyed, but there was just one problem.
"Unfortunately I only have one pair of trousers," says the Hezbollah veteran while grinning embarrassedly. "What can I do?"
So even though the guns have fallen silent, Suliman still thoroughly looks the part of militant fighter. He has a pistol stuck into his camouflage pants, a crackling radio peeks out of his pocket and he says he's rarely managed to take off his combat boots in recent days. The gray-bearded man is surrounded by his younger fighters, all of whom are still heavily armed. Normally forbidden to talk to journalists, they appear uncertain. But the 46-year-old commander has given his approval.
Suliman eagerly tells of how his troop fought Israeli forces until the last moments before the cease-fire. "I gave the order before we brought down the helicopter on Saturday," he says pointing to a spot somewhere in the mountainous region near the border. "It was an uplifting feeling." The Hezbollah commander even claims there are still plenty of dead Israeli soldiers in the hills. "They're afraid to recover them."
Of course, it's far from certain whether Suliman's 40-man unit actually shot down an Israeli chopper. However, all of Israel's heavy ordinance couldn't dislodge them from the village of Beit Lif, only three kilometers from the border. If Suliman is to be believed, he didn't lose a single man to the bombardment. "Up till the end we fired dozens of rockets in Israel's direction," he says. "We still have a few in the depots."
But today Suliman has different orders. Together with ten of his fighters he is gathering dead cows scattered around the 2,500-person village with a backhoe. Another four men are using a bulldozer to remove rubble from the streets. "We still have a lot to do," he says while looking at his watch. "We want to start with the rebuilding soon."
Beit Lif suffered considerable damage in the month-long conflict and Hassan is happy to show a destroyed farm as part of a tour of the village. The 34-year-old is a teacher from Beirut, but he's also part of what could be considered Hezbollah's militia reserves. Bragging about his fighting skills and how many Israelis he killed in a rocket attack on a Kibbutz in the nearby hills, he says he will now help with the reconstruction efforts before returning to the Lebanese capital to teach children English.
Hezbollah's reconstruction helpers are everywhere in southern Lebanon right now. Those men fighting in the port town of Tyre only days ago are now the ones clearing the streets, raising electricity masts and offering aid to local residents. The quick reorganization from combat to relief help made it possible for many refugees to return to their homes. Nasrallah even claims Hezbollah will rebuild the country on its own.
More than a fighting force
The militant group has always supplemented its fighting and terrorist operations with humanitarian efforts including supporting clinics and schools -- partly explaining its broad appeal with many in Lebanon. But now Hezbollah is hoping to gain popularity by rebuilding after a conflict that many blame the militants for starting in the first place. But in the bombed out town Qana, it's clear who's to blame. "We Will Rebuild What the Murdering Jews Have Destroyed," reads one banner.
The group certainly won't have a problem coming up with money for aiding reconstruction. Since the latest conflict broke out, Hezbollah's charitable foundations have been swamped with donations from throughout the Arab world. The images of destruction caused by Israeli air strikes have made heroes out of Nasrallah's outgunned men. And now they will show they care about the Lebanese people's plight as much as they hate Israel.
Along with money, Hezbollah seems to have everything else it needs for large-scale relief efforts: heavy construction equipment, building supplies and plenty of manpower. Until international aid arrives, Hezbollah will have finished much of the most pressing work. The extremists' own TV station, Al-Manar reported that hundreds of pre-fabricated houses were already being delivered around Tyre.
Even those unsympathetic to the Islamists are willing to accept their help right now. Fatma, a 34-year-old woman who is six months pregnant, has returned to the almost completely leveled town of Siddik to stand before her destroyed home. Two bombs turned the house her husband built for $150,000 into a large crater. She is angry at Hezbollah for sparking the fighting by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers.
"They've destroyed our lives with their nonsense," Fatma says while looking around to make sure there aren't any bearded militia members driving bulldozers nearby. "Everyone knew that Israel would attack."
But when asked who will help Lebanon pick up the pieces now that the fighting was over she falls silent at first. "The first help will come from Hezbollah," she says. "Then hopefully Europe will help." But her opinions are not widely shared in a region laid to waste buy hundreds of bombs. And Hezbollah's speedy response is likely to only strengthen the group's roots in the local population.
And that could make the mission of the Lebanese army and a United Nations peacekeeping mission to southern Lebanon more difficult. Suliman and his fighters certainly have no intention of laying down their weapons and demobilizing. "If Hezbollah left, the region would be completely empty," says Suliman grinning. "That can hardly be the goal of the UN, right?"