More than 30,000 Christians trapped in this mountainside village got their first glimmer of hope in a tension-filled week today when a Red Cross convoy carrying food and other relief supplies made its way through Druze militiamen who have surrounded and held the village's inhabitants hostage.
For the 6,000 villagers plus thousands of Christian refugees gathered here, the sight of the convoy and international press accompanying it brought enormous relief that another massacre could be avoided in the nine-day-old "mountain war" between Christians and Moslem Druze. The fighting already has taken more than 500 lives in Lebanon's bitter sectarian struggle.
The village has been isolated since last Wednesday when the Druze cut it off from the last Phalangist militia stronghold in the area at Bayt ad Din, which has now also been captured by the Druze in their sweep of the Chouf.
Riad Dib, brother of Mayor George Dib, said the situation was "very critical." Food had almost run out, the waterworks broke down and electricity went out.
"We had provisions for maybe 10,000 people, but this time we were overwhelmed," he said. Dib estimated that 40,000 Christian refugees from 54 villages taken over by Druze militia fighters throughout the Chouf last week were now crammed into the village's 14 churches, schools and historic monuments, although western diplomatic sources put the figure at about 25,000.
Local villagers have opened up their homes to the refugees but many are still forced to sleep in the streets.
After several abortive attempts and prolonged delicate negotiations, the Geneva-based international relief agency was finally granted permission to bring in enough supplies to feed 30,000 persons for at least three days and to take out wounded civilians.
A convoy of five trucks, four ambulances and three cars entered the village from nearby Bayt ad Din shortly after 1 p.m. and spent about 3 1/2 hours inside inspecting conditions before leaving.
While conditions appeared somewhat less critical than the Phalangist militia and local press have described, the ultimate fate of the hostage refugees remains uncertain. Village leaders said there were enough medical supplies on hand to cope with the situation and the Red Cross was not asked to evacuate any wounded civilians today because the local hospital was handling them adequately.
So far, 14 civilians have been killed and 40 wounded, according to Mayor Dib. The deaths all occurred last Monday when a rocket fell on one house, killing all of the inhabitants, including all seven members of the Edward Heddari family.
The most critical shortage in the village seems to be bread, which is now being carefully rationed. Meat is also scarce and the refugees said they are running out of money to buy food from local shops.
Access to this village is blocked by Druze militamen on all sides, many of them wearing cowboy hats and ski caps with red ribbons tied around them. They have been shelling the village periodically during the past week, and two more shells fell here this morning shortly before the Red Cross convoy entered.
The mountainside village of sturdy, white stone houses with red-tiled roofs is the old capital of the 17th century Emir Fakr Iddin, who first united the Druze in the Chouf. Thus, it has considerable emotional meaning to Druze as well as Christians, who constitute the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants today.
Hundreds of villagers, refugees and Christian militiamen milled about the central square today discussing the latest situation. Views seemed to differ widely as to whether their ordeal was almost over, but there was no sign of panic.
"The women especially are afraid the Druze will come in and there will be a massacre," said Munir Salibi, 24, a computer program expert from Bhamdun who was conscripted by the Phalangist militia from his Beirut job to fight in the Chouf war.
About 1,500 civilians and 50 militiamen came here from Bhamdun last Tuesday and Wednesday after the Druze overran that town on the Beirut-Damascus highway two days after the Israeli army evacuated it.
Three hundred persons, mostly Christian militamen, are believed to have died there, although 100 civilians are still missing and feared dead.
Salibi said there had been a general fear of "another Sabra and Shatila"--the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut where hundreds of civilians were killed by Phalangist militiamen last September. But he said he and many others now felt that international pressure, particularly from the United States and France, had saved the village from a massive assault and massacre.
In addition, he noted Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had given his word that his militiamen would not attack the village or harm its inhabitants and refugees.
The Red Cross has been negotiating with Druze militia leaders during the past three days to arrange for today's mission after a first attempt on Friday failed when gunmen refused to allow it into the village.
The Druze feel that the Red Cross, like the Lebanese government and international press, has been strongly biased in favor of the Christians and has not done enough to help Druze refugees or publicize their plight.
Red Cross representatives in Beirut said they had managed to evacuate six wounded Druze refugees Friday and another 10 today from a Phalangist militia camp in Michref near the capital, where Druze officials say a total of 67 persons kidnaped from Kfar Matta are being held hostage.
Phalangist spokesmen say the refugees there were wounded when a Druze shell fell on the house where they are being kept, but the Druze believe some have been deliberately killed.
The Red Cross was apparently allowed into Deir Qamar as part of an understanding that it would also work to get the Druze refugees in Michref freed from the Phalangist camp.
A local Druze leader told reporters in nearby Baakline that it was the "duty" of the Red Cross to rescue all 67 Druze refugees from the Phalangist camp and implied that the fate of the Christians in Deir Qamar depended on this. Red Cross representatives said they did not know when or whether another convoy would be allowed into the besieged village.
It took a group of American reporters nearly three hours to negotiate its own entry into this village as Druze militiamen debated back and forth whether to agree.