1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Focus Features Heritage Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters Along with thousands of her countrymen Ranwa Yehia went to the newly-liberated Lebanese south where she found new hope intermixed with apprehension, and among the vestiges of the 22-year long occupation, the imprint of untold horror
Thousands of people from throughout Lebanon surged into the newly-liberated south to celebrate. However, not all south Lebanese joined in the rejoicing
They came in thousands last week, creating traffic jams on roads that had been deserted for 22 years. Villages in south Lebanon, where only a few elderly people continued to reside, having refused to leave their homes during the occupation, were teeming with people cheering, dancing and singing patriotic songs.
But the crowds carrying banners supporting Hizbullah and other political parties in Lebanon, including the Amal Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party and the Syrian Socialist National Party, were a source of anxiety for the residents of the village of Qleiaa in Marjayoun.
The residents of Qleiaa, a predominantly Maronite village, were among the first to join the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia following its establishment in 1978.
While most villages in the liberated area saw former inhabitants returning, Qleiaa's population dwindled dramatically due to the flight of SLA militiamen on 23 May. Out of 5,000 residents in the Maronite village, less than 1,000 remain.
Except for the cheering supporters of Hizbullah and Amal passing through the village to celebrate the liberation, Qleiaa looked almost deserted. While some families remained behind closed doors, others went to the village church to discuss their uncertain future. "We are here because we are clean," said Elie Rizk, one of the few residents of Qleiaa who stayed behind. "But we are sad. The village is empty. Everyone fled to Israel because they were afraid. Hizbullah's warnings over the past two months made them leave," he asserted.
From top: Israeli soldiers rest after escaping "the nightmare of Lebanon"; a Lebanese student hurls the abandoned uniforms of Israel's client militia, the SLA, towards the Israeli side of the border; a freed Lebanese prisoner collects his belongings from his cell in the notorious Khiam detention centre
(photos: Reuters, AP &AFP)
Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah had enjoined SLA militiamen to surrender to the Lebanese government before it was too late. Rizk suggested that Hizbullah would seek out each collaborator once the Israelis withdrew.
However, thousands of SLA militiamen who fled, panic-stricken, to Israel last week in fear of reprisals from the resistance as the occupation crumbled around them, are now planning to return to Lebanon.
At least 6,000 militiamen and civilians are believed to have crossed the border into Israel as the central, western then eastern areas of the occupation zone in south Lebanon collapsed.
Many of those who fled were caught up in the widespread panic engendered by the hurried Israeli withdrawal. However, having had a few days to contemplate their future on the Israeli side of the border, a large number are having second thoughts.
On Sunday, the Lebanese Army announced that 1,488 former SLA militiamen had turned themselves in over the past two weeks. Two hundred have already been referred to the Military Court.
By Monday, at least 80 people had crossed the border on foot back into Lebanon and handed themselves in to the Lebanese army.
"They were afraid -- that's why they left. But most were not collaborators, they were either forced to join the SLA or had to work in Israel to survive. They had no choice," Rizk said.
The residents' fears were understandable. They are a minority and feel completely isolated. Many still felt insecure following the reassurances of local government officials who visited the village.
Tanios Hakim, another Qleiaa resident, received reassurances from a Hizbullah official, but he is more troubled that chaos will reign in the area if the Lebanese army does not enter it. His concern was echoed by Shi'ite, Druze and Christian residents in the liberated zone.
So far, only Internal Security Forces are policing the area. There is no word on when the army will come in.
In the village of Khiam, the home of the notorious detention centre, 70-year-old Mohsen Ibrahim gazed at his son who arrived from Beirut on 25 May -- a day declared a national holiday by Lebanese President Emile Lahoud to commemorate the resistance and liberation. Ibrahim's son, Hassan, fled the village in 1976 following one of the first Israeli massacres in south Lebanon in which 70 people were killed. "My parents returned to the village shortly after, but I didn't. I was scared for myself and my sons," Hassan said.
Although Hassan cannot return to live in his village because of his job in Beirut, he said that he will be back "every weekend, holiday and during summers. When I arrived in the village this morning, I told my sons that this is their hometown, where their roots are and that they should always remember how precious it is," he said.
In the village of Debbine, Marjayoun, Mohamed Yassin returned for the first time since 1985. "I was forced to leave three times already. This time, I am here to stay," Yassin said. He is lucky because his job is in Sidon, a mere 45 minutes away.
During the period he was away from his village, he rented a small apartment in Nabatieh, Marjayoun where he stayed with his wife and two children. On 24 May, Yassin drove his pickup truck carrying all his belongings back to his village. "I'm finally back," he said, his eyes gleaming.