The few remaining Christian families left in this nearly deserted Beirut suburb now controlled by Shiite Moslem militiamen are living on the knife's edge of reprisals by their new occupiers and what seems like an inevitable battle by the Lebanese Army to once again take control of the war-scarred village.
Wedged between the Shiite-controlled villages of Burj al Barajinah and Hay-Sellum, just south of the capital, Meryje is both a potential flashpoint in the fragile cease-fire in Lebanon and a poignant illustration of the devastating effects of constantly shifting territorial control in Beirut and its environs by warring factions.
Twice last weekend it changed hands between the Phalange militia and fighters of the Moslem Shiite Amal forces, after government troops apparently abandoned their positions there. The village, scarred by the fierce fighting, was burned in vengeance by the Shiite militiamen.
Exasperated Moslems and Christians who were here on Wednesday said they could become content with the Amal militia's presence if only their village could be spared another battle for control.
"If the Lebanese Army wants to come and fight, keep them out. If they want to come in peace, welcome," said a Christian widow who refused to join an estimated 3,000 refugees who have fled Meryje in the last several days.
Tanyos Bushdid, an elderly Christian vegetable grower who sat out the weekend battles with his crippled sister in their basement and also refused to leave after the Shiites regained control early Monday, said, "What will happen, Allah knows. I only want some safety."
Not surprisingly, Shiite and Phalange officials offered sharply differing versions of the causes of the tragedy of Meryje.
Nabih Berri, head of Amal, said that the Phalange militia went into the village early Saturday when the Lebanese Army abandoned its positions there and that the Shiites were forced to take it. He said that the Shiite militia left Sunday after the army promised not to let the Phalange forces back in, but was forced again to seize the village when the Christian militiamen came back in behind the departing government troops and murdered a Shiite family.
A Phalange militia spokesman said that a force of 50 men pulled out of Meryje at 9 a.m. last Friday, but when government troops failed to fill the void as expected, a larger Christian unit regained control. He said that at 6 a.m. Saturday the Phalange gave the village back to the Lebanese Army, but 15 minutes later the army left again and did not return as promised.
Amal militiamen here admitted that they were responsible for burning the 500 to 700 houses that were destroyed after the last time they seized Meryje, but they said that the houses had been used by the Christian forces for firing on Shiite positions.
Christian residents here also told of looting and vengeful destruction as the Shiite militiamen moved back into the village.
Enis Houry, whose Armenian Catholic husband is in France, said that four Amal gunmen burst into her spacious villa four different times and set fires and looted while she and five relatives stood helplessly by and watched. Houry said the walls of most of the rooms were pocked by bullets, furniture was smashed and two cars in the driveway were set afire. The militiamen systematically went through all the family's clothing and ripped holes in the garments with shears, she said.
"I'm a Christian, but I'm not Phalange," Houry said. "I don't know why they did this. Moslems and Christians here have always been friendly." But she said that she would not leave because "this is the house of my grandfather, and I was born here." Houry said that her Moslem neighbors interceded on her behalf and that she eventually obtained a document from Amal assuring she would not be bothered again.
But for the most part Meryje has been deserted by its inhabitants, and some villagers feel that it is only a matter of time before Shiite families begin squatting in some of the abandoned houses. A church that had been used as a Phalange headquarters has been destroyed by the Shiite militiamen, and throughout the village Christian houses stand charred by the wave of arson or in piles of rubble from dynamite charges set by Amal militiamen.
Edgy Shiite gunmen, some of them riding in jeeps taken from Lebanese Army troops and carrying M16 rifles taken from Phalange militias, patrolled the deserted streets. At the local Lebanese government gendarmerie, policemen with no authority and nothing else to do passed their time washing a car and chatting with Amal gunmen.