Funerals in Lebanon's south foster culture of martyrdom
Saturday, Hizbullah buried 54 fighters, by one count. The values of martyrdom often pass from father to son.
Tearful and dressed in boy-sized camouflage, Ahmad Kamal Chehab laid his father to rest with a handful of dirt that he let slip through his small fingers as his father's casket was lowered into the ground.
Just 11 years old, Ahmad saw in the embroidered yellow Hizbullah flag on his father's casket a vision of the future – his future.
"I feel proud of my father. I'm proud he is a martyr," says Ahmad at the intimate funeral in Barachit, a village nestled along limestone hillsides and extensively damaged by five weeks of Israeli bombardment.
Asked if he is ready to follow in those footsteps, the boy answers without hesitation: "Yes."
With Hizbullah guerrillas in south Lebanon, the values of martyrdom and jihad against Israel are passed from father to son, creating a bond that solidifies resistance to Israel in village after village.
Hizbullah buried 54 fallen fighters, by one count, across south Lebanon on Saturday. The sound of Israeli jets could be heard across the country, north and south, on Sunday.
In a warning to Hizbullah, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr warned that any group that jeopardizes the peace, by firing rockets and giving Israel a pretext for resuming the war, would be considered a "traitor" collaborating with Israel.
But even if the cease-fire holds, the funerals illustrate how the culture of martyrdom and ideals of Islamic resistance are passing from one generation to the next.
Here, martyrdom is seen as the highest form of glorifying God, as it often is for adherents of the Shiite minority across the Islamic world, and especially in Persian Iran.
"It's a very proud moment for the family – now they put [the Hizbullah fighter] in the ground, and send him to God," says one man who has spent years in the United States and gives his name as Yusef.
"This is a moment to mourn – this is death, and they have feelings about it," Yusef continues. "After that, it is a moment to celebrate."
He compares the passing of the guerrilla torch here to fathers in the West, who instill the knowledge and passions of their professions to their children.
"They believe the same things, and have the same values, that they are fighting for dignity," says Yusef. "A father teaches his sons, and they watch their fathers, and want to follow in their footsteps."
Martyrdom, he adds, is a powerful tool that revitalizes what the mourners – and celebrants – at funerals in south Lebanon see as a religious fight for justice.
"Nobody here wants war," says Yusef. "[But] for each martyr that [has died], there will be a thousand more like them."
Seen through that prism, the current cease-fire and the 34-day fight are just the latest episodes of a violent continuum that has spanned decades.
The head of Hizbullah in the south, Sheikh Nabil Qawook, spoke at the funeral Friday of 26 of the civilians killed at Qana on July 30 – one of the single-largest civilian tolls in any Israeli airstrike, which sparked an international outcry – along with three Hizbullah fighters from Qana.
"We are here to say goodbye to our martyrs, those martyrs killed by smart bombs given to Israel by America, because their death makes the march of the resistance stronger," said Mr. Qawook, as an Israeli drone buzzed over distraught mourners.
He compared the loss at Qana to the death of Hussein and his followers at Karbala 14 centuries ago – the defining moment of faith that has shaped the Shiite worldview ever since.
"We get out of this massacre a victory," said Qawook.
"We celebrate the loss of our martyrs. But in Israel, with their death, with their funerals, they show they are losers; with their officers, decisionmakers, and leaders, they will fill up those holes in their land," said Qawook, whose brief appearance came under tight Hizbullah security. "We resist in this land, we stay and struggle and win this land, with the blood of our heroes, and the best of our sons and our loved ones."
That ethos was evident the next day in Barachit as two Hizbullah fighters and a civilian were buried. Men wept openly; young Ahmad, in his wannabe camouflage uniform, wiped away tears and had to be restrained as men leaned upon the flag-draped coffins in final farewell.
The funeral procession was led by 6-ft.-tall portraits of Ahmad's father, red-bearded Khalil Kamal Chehab, and 18-year-old Ahmed Hassan Ghaibir, who was killed in battle in Bint Jbeil.
Behind those portraits, carried by Hizbullah boy scouts, came equally large images of Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"He was waiting for 20 years to be a martyr," says one man of Ahmad's father, who at 40 was a senior Hizbullah officer.
"This is the third martyr in the same house – they were all three brothers," says another man.
And indeed, Mr. Chehab was placed beside his two brothers. Clearly from a Hizbullah household, brother Mohamad Kamal was killed by an Israeli shell in 1994, these men say, while performing ablutions at home before prayer. Brother Ibrahim Kamal was killed in 1987 in combat with Israelis not far from Tyre.
"They chose this path," says Yusef, the American-educated Lebanese, at the funeral. "They were not brainwashed as is often reported in the West."
And such a resistance pedigree is not uncommon. The portrait of the younger fighter buried Saturday includes an image of his father, Hassan, a well-known guerrilla who died in battle near al-Aishiyeh in July 1993. Hassan had helped capture an Israeli soldier, in the Hizbullah telling of the event, and both Hassan and the Israeli were killed by an Israeli helicopter attack.
Stories of father-son pairs in combat have been doing the rounds since the latest fight. In the village of Ait al-Shaab – across a narrow valley from the Israeli border, and one of the worst-hit villages, where house-to-house fighting devastated many blocks – Ahmed Srour's neighbors have entered the Hizbullah pantheon.
"The martyr was meters away when they shot him," says Mr. Srour, of his neighbor, Yusef Said Ali. "But his father was right behind him. He fired 30 bullets into the Israeli, and killed him."