Friday, August 04, 2006

Christian Villagers in Lebanon Have Nowhere to Run

Christian villagers have nowhere to run. Join me in praying for our Christian brothers and sisters in Lebanon and Israel. In full ...
Therese Asrouni felt no love for either side as she watched an intense firefight between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah guerrillas out her window yesterday. She loathed them both for once more turning her tiny tobacco-farming community into a war zone.

Residents of Ain Ebel say Hezbollah has been drawing fire toward the Christian village by launching Katyusha rockets from the nearby tobacco fields, just a few hundred metres from Ms. Asrouni's home. The militants leave when Israel returns fire, witnesses said.

The tobacco plantations that cover the valleys surrounding Ain Ebel are blackened now, charred by fires that burned out of control. Several houses in town have been damaged by missile strikes. Ms. Asrouni's husband Sayyed has dark purple shrapnel wounds in his back from a blast that tore a hole in their home's concrete outer wall.

"They have destroyed everything," Ms. Asrouni says, referring to the Shia militia. "They should help us because they are Lebanese, but look at the destruction. They fire missiles from here and that's why the houses are destroyed."

But, she went on, "Israel is even worse. Because we're Arabs, and because of the Israelis' racist way of thinking, they want to kill us all."

As the war creeps toward the edges of their villages, the Maronite Christians of southern Lebanon feel they have enemies on all sides. Many Christians worked with the Israelis during their 18-year occupation of this area -- some served in the hated South Lebanon Army, which was in fact a proxy militia controlled by Tel Aviv.

Now they feel betrayed by Israel, which abandoned its former allies when it suddenly pulled out of Lebanon in 2000. Some former SLA members were given citizenship and compensation by Israel, but many of those left behind were jailed by the Lebanese government.

The Christians also feel persecuted by Hezbollah, which views them as having collaborated with the enemy during the occupation. Residents speak critically of the Shia militia only inside their homes, and even then they use hushed tones, worried their words could come back to haunt them.

"It's confusing for us. We don't know which side to take," Mr. Asrouni said of the current conflict. His body bears the scars of the town's tortured history. In addition to the shrapnel wounds on his back, the 52-year-old bus driver has a deformed left leg from a land mine he stepped on in 1975, when the SLA was locked in fierce battles with Palestinian militant groups operating in the south.

There's not much fight left here now. Usually, 10,000 people spend their summers in this hilltop town. But only about 50 people remained yesterday as the front crept closer to Ain Ebel's outskirts.

The village of Aita al-Shaab, visible on the horizon, was pounded throughout the day by Israeli artillery after three Israeli soldiers were killed in a Hezbollah ambush. From the Asrounis' window, the town was almost obscured by smoke.

Those who have remained are ignoring repeated Israeli warnings to flee the area because they fear that if they do, Christianity's hold on this town with biblical significance will be broken for good.

The archbishop of nearby Tyre visited yesterday to steel the spirits of those who had remained behind.

"We are caught in a conflict of Jews and Muslims. We have a mission of peace," said Monsignor Nabil Hage as he walked slowly through Ain Ebel's deserted streets. "This is a holy land. Christ passed here, the Virgin Mary passed here, the apostles passed here. It is a holy land that we must defend."

At the sight of the archbishop, tearful residents came running out of their homes to greet him.

"Pray for us!" a middle-aged woman wailed. "Give us hope!"

The situation was becoming increasingly dire, they told him, with supplies of food and crucial medicines running low. The only hospital in town was closed -- the doctors having all fled -- and finding medical treatment involved a dangerous drive through a war zone along badly damaged roads.

Residents felt they had little choice but to hunker down and hope they can survive. "We're in the middle now. We're being attacked by both sides. It's very depressing," said Louis Suleiman, 60. "But if we leave our homes now, they will brand us as traitors again."