Fleeing Lebanese Christians See Town Forever Changed

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.

The number varied of other houses damaged -- 10, 20, perhaps more. And in a town where houses represent families, and families represent centuries of history, residents said a part of Marjayoun was lost, too.

Water was scarce, an irony for a town whose name means "field of springs" in Arabic. "They had springs outside their homes, and they couldn't reach them," Farha said. Generators began giving out as gasoline ran short. And people decided to leave.

"Everybody will say: 'Why did they leave? How did they leave?' " Farha said. He called the question easy in hindsight. "Looking at the war with your eyeglasses on is easy," he said. "But when you're in the middle of it, it's much more difficult."

Farsan Kfouri said his family of 35, along with others, gathered at 8:30 a.m. Friday on the town's main street. They waited for permission through the day, as Israeli shells crashed down on Khiam and the outskirts of Marjayoun. There were negotiations and rumors about Israeli permission, and the convoy of hundreds of cars finally set off at 4 p.m., passing several miles in two hours along a dirt road with white smoke furling skyward sometimes 500 yards away. Short on gas, some cars were abandoned on the road.

"The cars were bumper to bumper, and the people were terrified," he said.

By nightfall, the convoy had split into small groups, making their way through the Bekaa Valley. At times, the road was lit by a full moon, tinted yellow, illuminating the nearby mountains. As they left the valley at about 9 p.m., near the town of Kefraya, known in Lebanon for the wine of its vineyards, some in the convoy saw flashes of light and heard blasts. Chaos ensued. People got out of the cars; the air filled with screams and cries. Others shouted for the drivers to turn off their car lights. Minutes later, a Lebanese soldier ordered them to turn the lights back on. Cars careened in every direction, trying to retreat. On her way out, Ronitte Daher, the correspondent for an-Nahar newspaper, who was riding with her sister, said she saw the body of a man she knew, Elie Salama, a baker in Marjayoun.

"We thought we'd go out of this region, and we'd be safe, but it was the opposite," she said.

The residents of Marjayoun were told the convoy had permission, but the Israeli military said that although a request was made for safe transit, it was never granted. It said it had mistaken the cars for Hezbollah guerrillas transporting arms.

"The clearance was not clearance enough," Hamra said bitterly.

With his family, Kfouri made it back to Rashaya and stayed with a family. He eventually made it to Beirut 24 hours later.

"Even if there was Hezbollah, they shouldn't have gone ahead and hit innocent civilians," he said.

In all, at least six people died -- two from Marjayoun, one from Deir Mimis, another civilian, a soldier and a Red Cross volunteer. Rumors swirled through the community of Marjayoun: who was hurt, who was killed. Some heard friends were dead who later turned out to be alive. Word spread slowly, since much of the convoy stayed put, the drivers too fearful to go any farther.

"It's so useless," said Nimr Musallam, who left Marjayoun during a lull in fighting two weeks ago. "War is ugly."

The war in southern Lebanon is infused with a Shiite Muslim narrative, both past and present. Memories run deep of the 18-year Israeli occupation over mostly Shiite villages. Often heard in today's conflict is the idea that nothing can be gained without sacrifice, that the Shiite community has already proved its steadfastness by battling the Israelis for more than a month.

There is a sense, too, that the war is not yet over. Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, vowed Saturday that while his group would accept a cease-fire, fighting would persist as long as Israeli troops were on Lebanese land.

"It is our natural right to confront them, fight them and defend our land, our homes and ourselves," he said.

Marjayoun residents expected to escape the brunt of the fighting. It is a Christian town and, during the occupation, it served as the headquarters of Israel's allied militia. The Israelis themselves were not necessarily popular, but the money their presence brought to the town provided a livelihood far better than today, as jobs are scarce and many of its young depart for Beirut or emigrate abroad. Occupation, though, draws on universal notions, as does exile; foremost, perhaps, is the uncertainty of when it will end.

"It's like you're deprived of your home," Musallam said. "It's your dignity, your identity, everything that concerns you."

He thought for a moment. "They could stay for a week, they could stay for a year. I don't know. Really."

As Farha left Marjayoun, his most distinct memory was the empty streets, framed by the olive groves that bend like a bow across the hillsides, interspersed with the grapevines climbing terraces, their ripening red fruit hanging over patios. A crater is carved into one road out of Marjayoun, as it hugs a hill of crumbling terraces and worn stones revealed by time. Five rocks, spaced a yard apart, block another road, impassable but by foot. The one path is a sand trail that arches over a deserted quarry.

Farha left his clothes, his three-month-old dog Max and pretty much all his belongings in a house he had painstakingly remodeled. And he thought back to more distant stories: 1948 and the war that led to Israel's creation. Palestinians in such towns as Haifa, Acre and Jaffa, and villages along the coast, were told to leave their homes for a few days until the war ended. They never returned.

"That is how people left," he said. "They left everything and the next day, in a few days, they thought they would be back."

Marjayoun will never be the same, he said. It could be rebuilt, but its terrain will likely remain scarred -- an intricate quilt of Lebanon's diversity. He wondered what would happen to the devastated Shiite villages of Dibin and Blatt next door, and Khiam across the valley. Or the more distant Sunni towns such as Kfar Shouba, Kafr Hammam and Shebaa, many of their residents having fled.

"When you see only Marjayoun around you, you become sad," he said.

Hamra, the mayor, thought back to history, too. He had never left Marjayoun. In the 1967 war, he said, he stood on his balcony, watching residents leave. He did the same in 1982, when Israeli troops invaded Lebanon. And the same in 2000, when they left.

"I was always watching the people," he said. "This time, what happened was a disaster, and I decided to leave."

He paused, thinking ahead. "I'll go back to Marjayoun. Myself, I'll go back." He stopped again. "If they allow me."

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