Late afternoon sun highlights the oak trees I stand amidst, the utter quiet broken only by birds’ chirping. It is easy to forget that the southern Lebanese hilltop I’m walking on was once the base of intense resistance against the Zionist occupation forces with their bases on surrounding hilltops and occupying villages below. From 1985 to 2000—when prolonged Hezbollah resistance eventually defeated the ZOF causing their retreat from Lebanon—Mleeta was one of the most important sites of the Lebanese resistance. The Mleeta guide and website report that from the Mleeta hilltop, over 7000 resistance waged attacks on surrounding IOF sites.
As our car crawls up the road, ascending into the beginning of the day’s thick fog, M points out the thick mesh of oak trees and rock, reminding me again of the resistance’s tactic of moving slowly uphill under the cover of fog. The blanket of trees was vital, but nonetheless the going would have been tough. “It snows in winter up here, it was an extremely hard life. They carried everything they needed on their backs…including anti-aircraft weapons—they carried them in pieces and re-assembled them at their site,” he notes.
Atop the over 1000 metre high hill it’s chilly despite already being the end of March. Two steaming cups of instant coffee help reduce my shivering but also make me reflect on how hard the life of a resistance fighter here would have been—far from the conveniences of home, in the hills for years, fighting for their country. “They ate the wild chestnuts,” M says, plucking an acorn from beneath a canopy of oak trees and shelling it for me. It is bitter and seemingly inedible, but necessity and survival dictated.
Up a flight of stairs to Mleeta’s highest point—and sight of a memorial to the martyrs’ sacrifice—the Hill provides a view of surrounding mountaintops where the ZOF were based—and expelled—as well villages below which were occupied then freed by the resistance. The view is panoramic, the oak tree and rock terrain obscuring anything that the fog doesn’t. “That was their secret, their weapon,” M says. “Looking down, you can only see trees; the ZOF never knew where the resistance were.”
In the centre of Mleeta are the remains of the enemy’s war vehicles, weapons and uniforms, like any good resistance museum. The vast depression, called the Abyss, is filled with a variety of ZOF vehicles, from battered ZOF jeeps, to remains of an ZOF helicopter, to the ZOF’s prized Merkava tank…its gun barrel tied in a knot, “indicating the neutralization of the israeli sophisticated military machine in the fight against the will and steady faith of the resistance fighters,” the Mleeta website explains. A sign next to the Abyss notes that the tank “was transformed by the Resistance, and in the enemy’s own words, from a ‘mobile land fortress’ into ‘a coffin on caterpillar tracks’.”
We walk along what is known as the Path, oak forest cover from which the resistance waged military attacks against ZOF targets. Large boulders and chunks of rock, carved by hand from the earth, are interspersed between the oak trees, providing still more cover for the resistance. We pass displays of Hezbollah rocket launchers, a field infirmary, the camouflaged site where former Hezbollah Secretary General, Sayyid Abbas Moussawi, prayed for and met with other resistance fighters. As we walk, M marvels, “Amazing, they cut the path by hand,” which doesn’t sink in for me until we come to the Cave.
As he steps into the beginning of a 200 metre long tunnel, he touches the newly-fortified tunnel walls pointing out the dense rock beneath. This, he says, was chiseled away by hand, by over 1000 resistance over 3 years. The tunnel twists into the mountainside, carving a path of safety for the fighters. It contains the expected: a make-shift infirmary; a cooking space… But in that kitchen is a small fridge…they’d later rigged up electricity. More surprising is the office with its desktop computer and printer, also presumably later additions.
*(cave photo from Mleeta website)
We emerge from the tunnel to the Outlook. Looking to the hillside, nothing of the resistance is visible, only the oak trees and rock; beyond and below us are the once occupied now liberated surrounding villages, and beyond that occupied Palestine.
Walking back along the Path, M points out wherever there are bouquets of flowers they are in remembrance of martyred resistance, and himself stops to say prayers of remembrance.
“Peace be upon you O’ martyrs of the resistance. Peace be upon you O’ martyrs of self-esteem, freedom and dignity. Peace be upon you and the land that embraces your graves.”
—A Tribute to the Souls of the Resistance Martyrs