The terror came to the suburban apartment of the Palestinian family on a Saturday night as Ahmed Subhai sat in stockingfeet in his living room watching the evening news.
His wife Khadra remembers the insistent drilling of the doorbell on that evening two weeks ago, followed by sounds of pushing and shoving at the door. When her husband opened the door, in stepped three men in green woolen masks with cutouts for their eyes and noses, one brandishing an automatic rifle, another a pistol.
While one of the men held Subhai, the others pushed his wife and children into the kitchen. His wife pleaded that they not harm her husband, offering money, jewels, even the apartment if they wanted it, she recalled. The children screamed and cried, and the masked men threatened to kill them and their father if they were not quiet.
Before they led Subhai outside and locked his family in the apartment, taking the key from the inside lock with them, he had a request--that he be permitted to put on shoes. The gunmen paused briefly while Subhai's 10-year-old daughter got them for him.
Five minutes later, as she fumbled to find another key to unlock the door, Khadra Subhai said she and the children could hear the whizzing of automatic gunfire outside.
A neighbor later found Subhai's crumpled body underneath olive trees on a field across from the apartment building. His legs were broken, his face bruised and swollen and there were bullets in his chest, stomach and back.
At least five other Palestinian men have been abducted from their homes in the hilly, high-rise suburbs of this port city and murdered in similar fashion during the past two weeks, according to authorities here and international relief workers. At least four others have been abducted and wounded, according to Hisham Shaar, head of Lebanon's internal security police.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said Saturday that 15 bodies have been found near Ayn Hulweh Palestinian refugee camp at the edge of Sidon during the past two weeks, The Associated Press reported. The U.N. agency said many victims had been identified as Palestinians but did not specify how they had died. The U.N. agency said that notices were found at mosques in the area during the past week calling on each Lebanese to kill a Palestinian, AP report added.
"Palestinians are being harassed in south Lebanon and their cars stolen--45 such auto thefts from Palestinians have been reported--and their houses and shops have been burglarized," Shaar also said.
If the Kahan Commission report on the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut last September has caused a moral uproar in Israel, one cannot discern any similar impact here in Lebanon.
Indeed there are indications that the campaign of murders, threats, bombings and kidnapings to get Palestinians to leave is but a smaller-scale replay of the Beirut massacre.
No group has come forward to claim responsibility for the killings and violence here, but a spokesman for the Lebanese Forces Christian militia in Beirut acknowledged Saturday that its troops here have been seizing control of apartments vacated by fleeing Palestinians.
"There have been some mistakes, some irregularities," said Fadi Hayek, the Lebanese Forces military spokesman. Hayek said Beirut officials intended to come to Sidon on Monday to investigate.
Both the International Committee of the Red Cross and officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency responsible for Palestinian refugees have appealed to Israeli military authorities to put an end to the campaign of terror.
On Wednesday, Olof Rydbeck issued a statement from UNRWA headquarters in Vienna, calling again on "Israeli forces . . . to put an end to these attacks, which are terrorizing innocent refugees, including children. It is Israel's responsibility to ensure the safety of the civilian population in the areas it controls."
His statement came the morning after bombs exploded at the Mieh Mieh Palestinian refugee camp outside Sidon, injuring three people and damaging 14 houses.
Local Lebanese police authorities have received complaints of the murders and terror campaigns but have not taken action to find suspects, contending they are political acts and that the responsibility for handling them falls on the Israelis.
Moreover, one Lebanese official here said privately that the weak Lebanese police force is powerless to operate in the suburbs, where Subhai was killed, because that territory is now under the control of the Phalangist Party and the Lebanese Forces.
Repeated efforts to talk to Israeli military authorities here were unavailing. An Israel Defense Forces spokesman in the Beirut suburbs who identified himself as Capt. Gil said that the IDF regarded the situation in Sidon as an internal matter and that any problems there were to be handled by local Lebanese authorities.
It was only by chance that Ahmed Subhai was in Lebanon on the night when the masked gunmen came to his door. He had returned from Iraq only days earlier to renew his Lebanese-issued refugee passport.
Like many of the men in the roughly 400 Palestinian families who had worked their way out of the refugee camps outside Sidon and into the pastel-colored high-rises in the hills overlooking the city, he worked most of the year in the Persian Gulf while his family remained here.
A child of 2 when the state of Israel was declared in 1948, he and his family left the village near Acre on the northern coast of Israel and resettled on the outskirts of Sidon in the Ayn Hulweh refugee camp.
He went to the United Nations schools for the refugee children, to tehnical college in Beirut and afterward in 1968 worked as a surveyor and later supervisor in large engineering firms working on construction projects in the gulf. After he got married and began raising a family, he kept them with him for a while. Six years ago, he bought a three-bedroom apartment in a yellow high-rise and his family moved back. He returned periodically to visit.
In the days after Subhai's death on Saturday, Jan. 29, the horror did not end for his family or for the other Palestinians in the suburban hills.
On Sunday, someone sprayed bullets across the windows of the apartment of one of Subhai's sisters who lived in the same complex.
On Monday, the apartment of another sister there was dynamited. No one was injured in either of those incidents.
On Wednesday, Palestinians in the apartment building and throughout the suburbs began to find fliers tucked into their doors. The message in Arabic on the fliers read in part:
"The glory of Lebanon is from the glory of its people and pure soil. The sun exists to light its soil and burn impure persons and to clear it from all those who tampered with or marred its security.
"O, the honorable Sidon townspeople and suburbanites, help us deport strangers from Lebanon, especially from your brave town Sidon, which got fed up with Palestinian oppression and sabotage.
"Our slogan is no more Palestinians on Lebanon's land . . ."
According to local Lebanese authorities and relief workers here, that campaign and the other murders that followed had the apparent intended effect. Palestinian families fled quickly, some leaving their furniture, others going to other cities and 50 or more of them, including the Subhai family, returning to Ayn Hulweh where they crowded in with friends or relatives. In some instances, 20 persons are packed into two small rooms of the crude cinderblock shelters.
When they returned to retrieve their furniture, the Palestinian families found signs on the door that said, "This apartment has been confiscated by the Lebanese Phalange. It is forbidden to enter it. To call, refer to the Phalange office in Sidon. Long live Lebanon."
Phalangist Party officials here denied that they put the signs on the apartments, but Hayek, the spokesman for the Lebanese Forces in Beirut, acknowledged Saturday that they had. Hayek said it had been the intention of the Lebanese Forces to seize control of apartments they believed had been owned by Christian families and taken over by Palestinians before the Israeli invasion when the PLO dominated this area.
But, Hayek said, Lebanese Forces officials in Beirut have indications that Palestinians were the legal owners of at least some of the apartments that were seized.
Khadra Subhai said she went to a Phalangist Party office to get her furniture. The experience there that she relates is similar to accounts by other Palestinians, according to local authorities.
Khadra Subhai said she did not have any problem securing permission to return to the apartment to get the furniture, but the Phalangist Party official told her she would have to sell the apartment to a person they choose and at a price they set. She said her husband had purchased the apartment for $33,000 and that she had offers from prospective buyers willing to pay $38,000, but that the Phalangist official told her she would have to sell it for about $19,000.
One visible response by Israeli officials since the outbreak of terror has been an increase in patrols at the Ayn Hulweh camp, which has for the most part escaped terrorist attacks in recent weeks in contrast to the Mieh Mieh camp in the hills above it, which has been the scene of repeated incidents.
The outbreak in Mieh Mieh and the terror campaign in the suburbs followed the dismantling on Jan. 25 of checkpoints in both places that had been manned by soldiers in the Israeli-armed, -equippped and -controlled militia of renegade Lebanese Army major Saad Haddad.
The checkpoint at Mieh Mieh was reestablished on Feb. 1 after an appeal by U.N. officials. But its presence does not appear to have abated the campaign of terror. The checkpoint in the suburbs had not been reestablished when a reporter visited last week.
The disappearance of checkpoints has raised strong suspicions and fears among Palestinians here. The word that travels through the camps is that it is an element of a grander design to drive Palestinians from the suburbs and city so that once they are all in one place they can either be shipped out or massacred.
The situation has brought about an irony, not lost on the Palestinians, that they are now calling for aid from Israel and the Haddad militia--once bitter enemies but now preferable to being exposed to whomever the masked men and flier writers are.
"We as Palestinians confess that we are under the authority of the Israelis," said one Palestinian, "and we consider them our protectors, although they are also our enemies."
Sidon's small Christian minority has always clung to the hills while the predominant Sunni Moslem population inhabited the coast, a familiar pattern in Lebanon. Before the Israeli invasion, they were a silent minority, a group with virtually no influence here, veteran observers said, as the city was tightly run by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The observers said it was because of the PLO dominance that Palestinian families were able to move into the hills when the high-rises sprouted in an explosion of suburban growth over the last decade.
After the Israeli invasion, observers said, the equation of power shifted here. Young Christian men suddenly appeared openly in the uniform of the Lebanese Forces Christian militia and there were recruiting drives that brought in more.
At the same time, the Christian Phalangist Party began opening offices and, according to several foreigners working here, they and the militia emerged as the new powers in the hills.
Edmond Rox is Phalangist Party leader in one of the suburban villages in the hills. In a conversation a few days ago, he and other party members wanted to stress the aid that the party gives to the elderly. They chastised the international press for constantly writing stories pointing out that the problems in Lebanon stemmed from religious conflicts. They said the problems resulted from bad Palestinians.
In his conversation Rox repeatedly stressed the unity of Lebanese, but he and the others complained bitterly about their life.
"The Palestinian people who are living here, they are good people but some are not so good," Rox said, before launching into a long series of complaints about problems that Christians faced under PLO occupation. He claimed the PLO had thrown babies in the air and shot them and had raped women. The press had witnessed some of these horrors, he said, but had refused to write about them. When asked for specifics about when and where they occurred, he gave no details. Instead, he began talking about the PLO occupation of the town of Damur between Sidon and Beirut at the height of the 1975-1976 civil war.
Rox said his Phalangist Party had no responsibility for the current campaign in the hills against the Palestinians and did not know who was behind it.
Asked about Phalangist involvement in arranging for the sale of apartments owned by Palestinians, the translator for Rox pleaded with a reporter that it was often difficult to translate accurately because, he said, one word in Arabic might have 14 different meanings in English.
Asked if he had any idea why so many Palestinian families were fleeing his village and those around it, Rox responded, according to the translator, "The killer and the thief of all Lebanon, he knows when he has done wrong. He will be afraid and will go. The good people will stay."
The young man translating for Rox interrupted to offer an opinion.
"There is no comparison between what we are doing and what they did to us before--and maybe will do to us later," he said.
Khadra Subhai has moved back to Ayn Hulweh with her mother. She also has sisters living there. Their husbands are in the Israeli prison in Ansar south of here. There are 17 persons in two small rooms, 10 children and seven adults.
Fear has spread around here. A middle-aged man who had promised to lead a reporter to the shelter later decided not to do so, saying he feared Israeli agents were watching. Instead, he sent along a 12-year-old girl to take the reporter to the house.
But Khadra Subhai did not seem to be afraid, and she was composed as she told the story, showing her husband's passport, his college diploma and glowing letters of recommendation from his employers.
While she talked, her two daughters, 10 and 8, did homework while her 4-year-old son tussled on a mat with one of his cousins. The boy had a red star pasted on his forehead, an honor earned at the camp school that his father also had attended.
When Khadra Subhai was talking about her husband's long climb upward, her eyes misted over, and for a moment she lost all composure. She grabbed her small son, kissed him, recovered quickly and resumed telling of the days of horror.