Leila Klink, a Maronite Christian widow with three daughters, set outside her cramped one-room hideaway on the Lebanese Ribiera explaining her reasons for refusing to abandon her shell-battered home in the Christian Beirut suburb of Ashrafiyeh, 15 miles to the south.
"no matter what happens, I am not going to leave my house in Lebanon. I am not going to become a refugee again. If the Palestinians had stayed [in Palestine], in 1948 you wouldn't have had a refugee problem," she said, referring to the 600,000 Palestinians now living in Lebanon and regarded by the Maronites and many other Christians as the source of their woes.
Born in Haifa, she and her family fled to Beirut to get away from the fighting between Arabs and Jews in their first war when the state of Israel was created in 1948. They were never able to return. Now her Maronite friends are fighting on their own turf against Syrian and leftist Arab militias to defend what is little more now than the myth of Christian Lebanon.
Three times during the past six years Kink's home in Ashrafiyeh has been hit by shells and repaired and four times she has moved all her belongings to the hill town of Beckfaya, northeast of Beirut, for protection. This is where her husband's family came from as did the Gemayels who lead the right-wing Christian Phalangist Party and its militia.
Since early April, the Christian militia under Beshir Gemayel, has been slugging it out with the Syrian Army and its Lebanese allies both in the heart of Beirut and in the Bekaa Valley city of Zahle, the center of the Greek Catholic community. It has been the worst outbreak of fighting since the 1975-76 civil war here, with almost 800 deaths reported in the two towns, mostly civilians.
The latest round of inconclusive fighting sparked the still-unresolved crisis between Israel and Syria over the Syrian introduction of ground-to-air missiles into Lebanon. It has also left the hard-line Maronite-led Phalangists and their supporters exhausted and extremely demoralized, their cause now tainted by the disclosure in Tel Aviv of their ties with Israel.
"We are still standing up now but who knows in 10 months from now," remarked Amin Gemayel, brother of Bachir and a deputy in the nearly defunct National Assembly. "We are in a race against time, which is working against us."
For the moment, there is a tenuous cease-fire as an Arab League mediation team tries to find at least a partial solution to the various crises afflicting this hapless land. The Christian militias withdrew from Zahle Tuesday under the protection of the Lebanese police.
But still, for the Christians of eastern Beirut there is "continous tension," as Leila puts it, or a "paralysis of life," as a secretary to one of the Gemayels expressed it.
Kink and her three daughters are among the few Christians who have stayed on in Ashrafiyeh, one of the hardest hit Christian quarters of Beirut because it lies just to the east of the "green line" dividing the warring factions in the capital. Even at noontime, Ashrafiyeh stands empty of traffic and people, with the corrugated shutters on most shops pulled down to the ground.
Only 10 percent of the population still lives there, according to Phalangist officials who make no pretense at hiding their concern with the deterioration in the situation. On Kink's street, for example, there are only three stores still open -- a butcher shop, a grocery shop and a flower stall.
This makes living in Ashrafiyeh still possible, if only just bearable, with everyone off the streets by mid-afternoon, business offices closed by 1 p.m. and many living in underground shelters or basement's by nightfall.
Klink, a tough, outspoken defender of Christian Lebanon, credits the Phalangists for the vast improvement in the security situation inside eastern Beirut during the past year.
"It is completely empty," she said, "but there are no thefts, no holdups and the place is very clean. Beshir has provided the protection and the law and order."
Still, Klink takes all her papers and jewelry with her everywhere she goes now.
The depressing daily scene of Ashrafiyeh explains why Klink, like thousands of other Christians, retreats up the coast on the weekends to Safra, one of the many crowded beach resorts just north of Dbeirut that serve as getaways from the tension and playgbrounds for the Christian youth.
Her "chalet," as she calls it, is actually a one-room studio on the ground level of the Abiya Marina Hotel, built 12 years ago for a foreign tourist trade that never developed and now crammed with refugees from eastern Beirut.
Since the 1975-76 civil war, there has been a tremendous building boom all along this strip of the coast, with real estate prices now sky high. The cost of a chalet here, for instance, is now $1,500 a square yard.
"I don't understand where the Lebanese get all their money," said Klink incredulously.
Even here, away from the warfront, sign of war are everywhere, but this time it is a war of the Christians' own making. Last summer, an armed struggle between two rival Christian factions engulfed the hotel, causing serious, still unrepaired, damage to the two top floors and leaving pockmarks around the front door lock of the Klinks' "chalet."
Beshir Gemayel's militia succeeded in destroying the National Liberal Party led by former president Camille Chamoun and his son, Dany. But the bloody struggle did nothing for Gemayel's reputation -- or the Christians' -- either at home or abroad.
Klink, who regards herself as a Chamounist, is philosophical about the infighting that has wracked the Christian community and even pushed one faction, under another former president, Suleiman Franjieh, into an alliance with the Syians. She compares it to that among various Zionist groups during their common struggle to establish a separate Jewish state in the Middle East.
Despite her avowed sympathies for Camille Chamoun, who is titular head of the Christian alliance known as the Lebanese Front, she regards Bechir Gemayel and his Phalangist militia as the saviors of the Christian cause.
"If it weren't for the Phalangists, there wouldn't be a Christian Lebanon today," she remarked. Whatever mistakes he have made along the way, "Bechir is really honest. He really believes what he says."
A blunt, hard-line and, some say uncouth man who has relied upon gun power rather than statesmanship to establish his rule over the rightist Christian forces, Bechir is blamed by many for leading them into the impasse where they find themselves today -- "tete-a-tete with the Syrians," as one Phalangist official put it.
A large minority of Christians, estimated at 500,000 or 40 percent of the total, has voted against him with their feet by chosing to stay on in West Beirut and other parts of Lebanon dominated Moslem and Arab groups, or the Palestinians.
Christians are, in fact, in the leadership of virtually all factions of the Lebanese political spectrum, from the Communist Party to the pro-Syrian National (Syrian) Social Party.
But few Christians living in eastern Beirut today, be they Maronite, Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox, seem ready to criticize Bechir harshly.
"We are united behind him as never before in our unhappiness," remarked a Greek Orthodox businessman.
Even the decision of the Gemayels and Chamouns to establish ties with Israel for military aid, taken in 1978 and probably even earlier, is defended by their supporters now, despite the additional trouble the disclosure has caused them.
"It came along when we were desperate," said Leila. "There was no choice."
This is the prevailing view among Phalangist officials and supporters, who are, nonetheless, divided on whether the Christians should now unilaterally renounce these ties -- as the Syrian and Leganese leftists are demanding -- or use them as a bargaining card to get guarantees for the long-term security of the Christian community.
Behind this controversy within the Christian community here, however, lies much cynicism toward the Israeli connection and the game Tel Aviv is playing in Lebanon to further its own ends.
"The interest of Israel is not to have peace between the Christians and Moslems," remarked Leila, reflecting a widely held view even among the Moslems. "Why should they disclose it [the Israeli-Christian contacts] now? Only to spoil any chance of reconciliation. Definitely."
"It is in the Israel's interest to keep the Christians on the defensive," she continued.
Despite all this, Leila is against an immediate break, because she says with resignation, "no one else would give us help."