Fleeing Lebanese Christians See Town Forever Changed

Israeli aircraft on Friday fired on a convoy of Lebanese civilians, police and soldiers, shown driving past Marjayoun.
Israeli aircraft on Friday fired on a convoy of Lebanese civilians, police and soldiers, shown driving past Marjayoun. (By Lotfallah Daher -- Associated Press)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 13, 2006

HASBAYA, Lebanon, Aug. 12

Israeli troops entered Marjayoun at 3:30 a.m. Thursday. They had first seized Burj al-Molouk. Next was Qleia. The last, along a road stretching from the border, was the capital of the province, a faded, once-prosperous town that unfurls up a hill overlooking a valley carpeted in olive trees and the imposing, wizened peaks of Mount Hermon, known here as Jebel al-Sheikh.

"They came with the tanks, of course," said Fouad Hamra, the town's mayor.

Residents said the 400 or so families in the town of Marjayoun stayed indoors, some too fearful to look out their windows to the street. Even a loud voice might draw notice, they said. The Israeli presence was ghostly -- some heard voices, a few saw the soldiers themselves, most knew of their presence by word of mouth, news broadcasts and the sound of fighting that went on outside their doors.

"People didn't dare leave their homes," said Hikmat Farha, a 53-year-old resident now staying in a Beirut suburb.

Nearly everyone has now departed the Christian town, where houses of cream stone and red-tiled roofs sit tucked in a southern corner of Lebanon, perched unfortunately along the Israeli border. Some left in the early days of the month-long war, when Israeli forces laid siege to Khiam, a Shiite Muslim town across the valley, where fighting still raged Saturday. Most, like Hamra, left Friday in a harrowing convoy of hundreds of cars that plied a moonlit road and was attacked by Israeli aircraft. Six people were killed and more than 30 wounded.

Now its exiled inhabitants await what many Lebanese fear is the start of a smoldering, undecided war, brokered by a U.N. resolution that might bring a respite rather than peace.

"It's tough for people not to be able to go home," Farha said.

The destruction of the front-line village of Bint Jbeil is far more harrowing, swaths of it pulverized into unrecognizable rubble. The siege of the seaside port of Tyre is more menacing, its thousands of people running short on food, water and gasoline after an Israeli order that any car traveling on any road risks attack. But the experience of Marjayoun is an example, writ in the footnotes of a war, of the sometimes ignored sentiments of conflict: the pain of loss, of uncertainty, of not knowing when homes will become theirs again.

"I wish I knew," Hamra said. "I wish they'd leave now."

The start of Marjayoun's occupation was quiet, but clashes soon erupted. What started them is a matter of dispute. Ever since Israeli forces left Marjayoun and the rest of southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah and its Shiite Muslim militia maintained a discreet presence. There were no retributions. There was no armed presence inside Marjayoun and other villages that belonged to Lebanon's other sects: Druze, Christian and Sunni Muslim. Some residents said it was not Hezbollah that fired on the Israeli troops in Marjayoun, but operatives of a secular, leftist party whose posters still adorn the sides of buildings and telephone poles across the region.

Whatever the cause, Israeli forces fired in Marjayoun. Samir Razzouk's busy shop in the newly renovated town square was destroyed, along with its lottery machine that drew customers and its shelves stuffed to the ceiling with decade-old oddities that gave him a reputation as a pack rat. The house of Suheil Abu Mrad near the town's lone mosque was damaged. So was the house of Karim Jabarra, who provided electricity from a generator when the city's power grid flickered and floundered, as it often did.


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