Saturday, July 29, 2006

On Perilous Border, Lebanese Christians Take In Muslims

From the Washington Post: Shiite Pilgrimage Leads to Church.

In full ...

The word went out -- there was refuge in a Christian village -- and thousands came.

In a pilgrimage of fear, Shiite Muslims from the towns most ravaged along the Lebanese border fled for Rmeish, a hilltop hamlet along a road where Israeli shells fell, at times, every 15 seconds Friday. Here, they escaped to a church, and at the church, a basement lit by soft shafts of sunlight. In it were the wretched of this war: children with dirty feet and a pregnant woman who feared giving birth in squalor, an 85-year-old man whose donkey, his sole possession, was killed by a bomb and hundreds of others among the at least 10,000 who arrived in Rmeish, some drinking from a fetid pool and walking the streets in search of food and goodwill.

"The safety of God," said Heidar Issa, one of those here. "That's what we were counting on."

In a country fractured by faith, torn asunder by 15 years of civil war, they found refuge among the Lebanese Christians they once fought. Their politics often diverged -- over support for Hezbollah, their views of today's conflict -- but they shared a plight. And in a common misery wrought by war, less than a mile from the Israeli border, there was fleeting coexistence rather than talk of strife.

"Everyone is opening their doors to anyone who comes," said Tannous Alem, a 43-year-old resident of Rmeish with a cross around his neck, who had brought 120 people into his home over 12 days. "We're all the same in times like these."

Southern Lebanon, populated largely by Shiite Muslims, has borne the brunt of Israel's attacks, its villages depopulated, its roads and bridges in shambles and nearly every family touched by the war. But the road to Rmeish along Lebanon's border is a microcosm of the diverse country itself: Sunni Muslim village, then Shiite hamlet, alongside Christian town.

Along the sea was Alma al-Shaab, a Christian village with its olive trees, cactuses bearing prickly pears and gardens wilting with no water. Inland was Yarine, a largely Sunni Muslim town, along rolling green hills with cream-colored stones and shrub-like trees. With a wave, an inhabitant there beckoned a passing car: "Welcome! Come join us!" On the Israeli side of the border, antennas stood like sentries along a ridge. Horses, seemingly lost, wandered the streets, unfazed by the explosions. Passing them was a gaggle of Syrian workers, fleeing on foot. Their white flags were tethered to crooked branches, held by hand.

"They are fighting jihad in the path of God," read a sign attached to an electricity pylon in Raamiye, a Shiite Muslim village near the site where Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid more than two weeks ago.

"Please," one woman cried. "Check and see if my home is safe."

"When you come back, can you take us?" another man shouted.

Next was Kawzah, a Christian village with an abandoned Lebanese army checkpoint, then Aita al-Shaab, a village known as a stronghold of Hezbollah, where torn electricity wires dangled like vines along the street. Israeli attacks have destroyed swaths of the village, now deserted. A white Toyota was abandoned there, its trunk unlatched. Next to it was a blue Mercedes, its hood open.

And then came Rmeish, long a rival of Aita al-Shaab, whose Christian inhabitants sometimes served as officers in a Lebanese militia that fought Hezbollah during the Israeli occupation that ended in 2000. The hundreds of displaced people convulsed its streets, gathering along the curbs.

"17 days without water!" one person shouted. Another pointed to the hillsides. "There are still bodies there," he yelled.

In peace, Rmeish was a village of 7,000, picturesque with its red-tiled roofs and tidy streets. Since Israel ordered Lebanese to flee their villages along the border, as many as 10,000 have come, perhaps more. Isolated from the rest of the country, Rmeish suffered the same fate as its neighbors: no fuel for cars even for those who want to leave, no electricity, and supplies of food dwindling, even as stores remained open. To bathe, wash dishes and cook, the displaced draw water from a fetid pool filled by winter rains. Some said they were drinking from it. Diseases like scabies were spreading. The municipal government, overextended in the best of times, has virtually collapsed.

A ride to Beirut, once $10, now costs as much as $400, sometimes more.

"It's so miserable," said Carla el-Hage, a 19-year-old from the village. "This is what you read in history books."

The displaced have gathered in homes, a school and a convent. As many as 700 went to the Tajali Church, part of it unfinished. On a concrete steeple, roofed in red tile, stands a cross. Windows await their stained glass. On the church door was a letter pleading for order: a curfew beginning at 7 p.m., no lights at night and no trucks on the streets that might be targets.

In the basement was Khadija Rahme, a 29-year-old woman, eight months pregnant with her first child. She grasped a half-burnt candle. Her face drawn, she complained that there had not been enough water for bathing in 17 days.

"I'm so scared," she said, pleading. "I'm so scared I'm going to have to give birth here."

Next to her was 50-year-old Haniya Srour, who started crying.

"She's 95 years old," Srour said, pointing to her mother, Malika, lying listlessly on a mattress.

"Look how we're eating," she said, pointing to week-old bread, crumbling in her hands. Nearby was a bottle of drinking water, tinted green. Around the room were mattresses in small spaces, pans and silverware soaking in pots, plastic bags stuffed with clothes, a Koran and their identity papers, and cheap rugs marking the extent of each family's domain.

"Come look at the bathroom," she said, walking into a pitch-black room, the toilet a plastic bucket.

Not everyone in Rmeish was happy with the flood of displaced Shiites. Some complained that a few had broken into deserted houses, searching for food. Others worried that they might become squatters. And there was a sense of relief as thousands managed to travel the dangerous roads and flee toward Beirut since Thursday. But even the displaced were struck by the generosity they found in a village that, almost without exception, they thought the Israelis might not attack because it was Christian.

"They welcomed us with 100 hellos," said Issa, who arrived 10 days ago with 26 people in his truck. "Bless them."

His friend, Hussein Rahmi, nodded. "It's safer with the Christians," he said.

In the church's courtyard walked Fadi Abdoush, a stocky, 23-year-old Christian from Rmeish, with the gait of someone who had taken charge. He worked at a grocery store, but since the conflict began, he had struggled to provide help for the displaced.

"There is no city council," Abdoush said. "I've become the city council now. I've become the mayor."

He turned on a faucet that let out dirty water. "This is what we're drinking," he said.

He walked past 11 steel vats from Holland for shipping hydrogenated vegetable fat that he had lined up next to the church. Filled with stagnant water, they were for washing clothes. He walked into the entryway of his house, where he had set up three large steel plates for baking bread. He pointed out a makeshift latrine, too small to serve so many people. Then he walked into a small concrete hut, with brown tobacco leaves hanging from the roof for drying, where he had put 28 people, one family, who came from Aita al-Shaab.

Sixteen days ago, their house was destroyed. They had walked to Rmeish at 3 a.m.

"We don't know what our destiny is," said Hussein Nassar, the 65-year-old patriarch. "We have no idea what awaits us."

Abdoush looked out at the family. "One day it might be our turn," he said, echoing the words of neighbors that were often repeated Friday.

Along the town's main road was a jarring scene: a rare, chaotic, desperate panorama of life in an otherwise desolate and deserted region. People milled about on the roads, looking for rides. "$500 to Beirut! This isn't a shame? It's not a shame?" Suheil Adeeb shouted. Others stood expressionless. They held bags with clothes, blankets in plastic bags and their cooking pots on the street before them, the metal catching the glint of the sun. "We're waiting for God's help," said Yusuf Jamil, a 24-year-old from Aita al-Shaab.

A convoy left the city. Other cars joined it, frantically, people believing that in numbers there was more safety.

"It's a disaster for them, and it's a disaster for us," said 30-year-old Yusuf Rida.

Three nights before, his house was destroyed. So were three houses of his relatives. His grandfather was killed, as was his grandmother. With his cousin and uncle, they were still buried in the rubble. Before dawn, he walked to Rmeish with his three children and wife, all of them barefoot, bringing nothing with them but their clothes. They slept by the fetid pool.

"I didn't want to leave," he said.

"It was forced upon us," added his wife, Amal.

As they left Rmeish, a convoy with perhaps 100 cars plied the road, the vehicles flying their ubiquitous white flags, as blasts reverberated in the wadis along each side. Ahead, the white flag once tied to the roof of one minibus trailed behind it like a sail. There was a battered red Mercedes, improbably filled with 10 people, and a red tractor carrying 20 in back. They passed olive trees, a plowed but abandoned field and a silver Mercedes that was abandoned. "Joe Taxi," its windshield read.

At each blast, the eyes of Rida's children grew wider, and his wife cried more.

"These aren't my tears," she said. "These are the tears of my children."

He called his brother, staying near Sidon, to see whether he had room for his family. His daughter asked where another relative had gone. But for long stretches, they simply sat in silence, the terraced, rolling hills of southern Lebanon passing their windows.

"We don't know where we're going," he said softly. "We're just going."