Older residents kept village alive during war in Lebanon

Elderly leading way back to normality after 15 years in cross-fire

June 04, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AL QANTARA, Lebanon - War couldn't budge Salman Abdallah Kassem and his wife from this front-line village in South Lebanon, not even when a mortar pierced their roof and a bomb killed their daughter.

Only after Kassem tripped while fleeing a shelling attack two years ago, breaking both legs and losing his ability to farm and tend cattle, did the couple move in with their sons elsewhere so he could get medical treatment.

For 15 years, a small number of middle-age and elderly villagers kept Al Qantara alive while dwelling in the cross-fire, isolated from the rest of Lebanon and facing danger, shortages and curfews.

Al Qantara offers part of a picture of life under occupation that is coming into focus after Israel's abrupt withdrawal from South Lebanon last month.

Thousands of people willingly cast their lot with Israel and its local proxy, the South Lebanon Army, drawing salaries and business from Israel. Others were coerced into cooperation under threat of expulsion from the Israeli-controlled zone or detention and torture at Al Khiam prison, which was operated by the SLA.

The Muslims who hung on in Al Qantara were among many caught in limbo, hiding their sympathy for guerrilla fighters while trying not to provoke trouble from Israelis and the SLA.

When Israel partially withdrew from Lebanon in 1985, three years after its second invasion, Al Qantara became part of the new dividing line. The densely built-up northern half of the village, emptied of residents, turned into a stronghold of two Shiite militias, Hezbollah and Amal.

Up a hill to the south sat a heavily fortified SLA outpost within the occupation zone, yards from Kassem's home.

"There was always shelling, sniping, firing," said his wife, Mariam Eswayden, 71, pointing to a patched-up mortar hole in her ceiling.

Shells and Israeli bombs devastated the older part of the village, leaving scarcely a building intact.

SLA soldiers holed up behind reinforced concrete on the other side, so edgy about guerrilla attacks that they planted booby-trap bombs nearby at night. One killed the Kassems' daughter.

The SLA militiamen also had reason to be suspicious of each other. In June 1985, 11 SLA soldiers, mostly Shiites, persuaded nearby United Nations peacekeepers to stage a mock battle that allowed them to defect to Amal.

SLA leaders accused the peacekeepers of helping Amal capture their men and for eight days held hostage 21 members of a Finnish contingent of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.

The incident embarrassed Israel and cast early doubt on the SLA's ability to hold its own.

To avoid being conscripted, nearly all fighting-age men of Al Qantara left, as did the families of most of them, cutting a peak population of more than 4,000 before Israel's first invasion, in 1978, to no more than 50 before the SLA pulled out last month.

"The Israelis said if you had two or three sons, at least one should serve in the SLA," said Abed Ali Sarir, 73.

`Couldn't risk my boys'

After her five sons left one night 12 years ago, Najiba Abbas said, the Israelis told her to leave, too. "They said I couldn't stay because I let my boys leave the area," she said.

So she and her husband went to stay with relatives.

"I couldn't risk my boys to get killed," she said.

An Israeli official said that generally, the Israeli army never dealt with recruitment, leaving it to the SLA. Of coercion to join, he said, "I can't say it never happened."

Those who remained in the village after the young men left came under tight restrictions, including a curfew from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"That could even have been for their own safety," said Lt. Mika Vuolle, a spokesman for the Finnish battalion.

Ali Sarir developed a connection as a taxi driver for the SLA but eventually had to stop work when the Israelis decided that no villagers could keep cars. He also had to close his auto repair shop. Villagers had to summon taxis from another town to buy food, although the Red Cross arrived every few months with provisions.

Ali Sarir said he had to obtain permission to leave the village and even to work in a nearby field, and he had to hoist a white flag to show the militia where he was.

His daughter was killed by a booby trap while heading to the SLA outpost for a permit to leave the village. To bury her, Ali Sarir had to supply the SLA with a list of all those who would attend the funeral and later had to confirm who had attended. His sons weren't allowed back. Only their wives attended.

`Miserable way to live'

"It was a miserable way to live. We didn't have a chance to breathe," said Ali Sarir. He showed a visitor bullet holes in the front door and walls of his house, evidence of battles that sent him and his wife diving for cover. The area was so hard for the SLA to control that it pulled out from its Al Qantara outpost months before last week's militia collapse.

"I was born here. I lived my life here. I wasn't going to leave my house," said Ali Sarir.

"We stayed because of our house, our fields and cattle," said Mariam Eswayden.

The elderly are leading the way back to normality.

Kassem's cows are dead, his tobacco field is burned, and his house was looted of furniture during the couple's absence. But he and his wife have moved his walker and a cot into the main room of their farmhouse.

Najiba Abbas picked her way through tall weeds to her bullet-pocked home to find it littered with ammunition boxes and other SLA debris. She has made the front hall and an adjacent room as neat as a pin.

In the serene rural stillness that has fallen over the village, she can look past her olive trees and grapevines at a panoramic vista of hills in hues of green and sand.

Ali Sarir is host to young and old returnees with tea on his front porch.

The talk often is of the occupation. Villagers condemn the Israelis, a common theme in South Lebanon after the withdrawal.

"They want to cleanse themselves of the past. They want to live their life now," said the Israeli official.

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