Qana is the place Jesus turned water into wine. To this US resident it is the refugee camp in which he lost two sons to Israeli shells. Now America is forcing him to go back to Qana against his will

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The Independent Culture
When he met me at Detroit airport, Haidar Bittar was dressed in black, and hanging around his neck beneath his long, bushy, black beard was a laminated photograph of his two dead sons. I have grown used to this strange uniform; in Lebanon, parents who have lost their children wear their pictures on their chests. But this was the United States. The TV set in the arrivals lounge was reporting Saddam Hussein's latest defiance of America. A group of passengers in baseball caps stood watching the report, which was liberally spattered with the word "terrorism". Haidar Bittar greeted me formally, with a handshake and the words "salaam aleikum", but he wasn't smiling.

A small boy was running around the lounge and Mr Bittar pointed at him. "This is the only son I have left," he said in an offhand way. The others, eight-year-old Hadi and nine-year-old Abboudi, were killed by the Israelis in the massacre at Qana three years ago. I looked around the lounge. I doubt if any of the passengers knew where Qana was - unless, of course, they knew their Bible. Qana was the place where Jesus turned water into wine. But for Mr Bittar, it is a place associated with blood.

He drove me in silence through the Detroit suburb of Dearborn with its Lebanese restaurants, its halal butchers, mosques and offices of "Islamic instruction". The Lebanese have deep roots here, and the Lebanese flag flies alongside the Stars and Stripes. But Mr Bittar has no reason to feel at home.

Indeed, if ever the word "injustice" needed definition, it can be found in Haidar Bittar's tiny, borrowed house. In a thick file he keeps photographs of his two eldest sons, taken just after their slaughter. "Don't let my wife see them," he pleads, turning away from Chadia. I can understand why. Hadi's body was torn apart by the Israeli shell that killed him. A few pages away is the application made by Mr Bittar's mother - terribly wounded in the Israeli attack on the UN compound on 18 April 1996, in which she and hundreds of other Lebanese Shia Muslims were sheltering - to visit America for medical attention. Pinned to the application is a rejection slip from the US embassy in Damascus.

A little further through the file comes the treble whammy: a letter from the US Department of Justice ordering Mr Bittar's deportation from America back to Lebanon. And there is one more dart. Mr Bittar and his mother are the principal petitioners among Lebanese relatives of the 106 Qana dead who have asked the United Nations to investigate "violations of human rights" by Israel during the 1996 bombardment in which Hadi and Abboudi died. He would like "reparation" from Israel. And, as his lawyer points out, he fears for his life and that of his wife Chadia and surviving children if he is forced to return to his family home in Qana, just two miles from Israel's occupation forces in Lebanon.

Like many Lebanese who fled the 16-year civil war, Haidar Bittar moved to west Africa in 1976. Hadi and Abboudi were born in the Ivory Coast, as were two later children, Katia, now nine, and six-year-old Khodor. Two further children, Wuroud and Dalia (aged two and one) were born in the US. But the Ivory Coast itself degenerated into civil unrest in which the Lebanese were targeted. Mr Bittar had been a regular business visitor to the US and returned there, legally, with Chadia, Katia and Khodor in 1995. Discovering his wife was again pregnant, he applied for - and received - an extension of stay which enabled Chadia to have her fifth baby, Wuroud, in the US. Hadi and Abboudi were at school back in Lebanon and the Bittars decided to allow them to finish their educational year. Besides, his mother wanted to spend some time with them "before I die", as she told the family. Mr Bittar went back to the Ivory Coast in October 1995 in the hope of setting up his home there once again. He found the country still in a state of civil war. But when he came back to the US a few days later, his passport was seized at Chicago airport.

Mr Bittar was allowed to go to Dearborn, where his wife and children were. Hadi and Abboudi remained in Lebanon with Mr Bittar's mother, not far from the UN camp in the village of Qana. Mr Bittar still remembers with intense pain his last conversation with them just before their death in April 1996, via a mobile phone. Israel's bombardment of Lebanon - which it called "Grapes of Wrath" - had already been under way for more than a week and thousands of shells were falling across southern Lebanon. "Abboudi wanted to come here to see his new sister Wuroud, and my mother wanted to go to Beirut because so many shells were falling on Qana," Mr Bittar remembers. "But I knew the UN camp was near and told them to go there for protection. My mother said 'Why not? We can walk there. No problem'."

It was fatal advice. Two days later, the Israelis - who claimed they were responding to mortar fire from a Hezbollah unit that had discovered Israeli troops laying booby-trap bombs near Qana - shelled the UN camp for 17 minutes, killing 106 refugees inside, 55 of them children. "My father called and asked me where the kids were," Mr Bittar says. "I said 'in the Qana camp' and he said something had happened there, that there were more than 80 dead. I called my aunt in Beirut and she said: 'Your sons were killed.'"

As he speaks now, Mr Bittar has tears in his eyes and he opens his hands out in a gesture of helplessness. He and Chadia embarked on a hopeless protest outside the White House. It was, after all, an American shell that had torn their sons to pieces, fired from an American gun by America's Israeli allies. "I stood outside the White House with a poster, and some people were sorry for me," Mr Bittar says. "But they didn't really understand. When children were killed in the Oklahoma bombing, Americans understood how parents suffered. But I am also a parent - I suffer too. And it was a government supplied with American weapons that killed my children."

With one of those fine distinctions which prompt a drawing in of breath, the US Justice Department demands the deportation only of Haidar Bittar, his wife and the two eldest surviving children. The youngest - Wuroud and the sixth child, Dalia, can stay on, aged two and one - as they are US citizens. Mary Ramadan, Mr Bittar's Washington lawyer, regards his treatment as an outrage. "My client and his family are in danger of their lives," she says. "The Israelis made it clear that if people don't leave their villages when ordered to, they feel free to kill those who stay. In the 1996 bombardment, Israel's violence was specifically aimed at civilians." Israel opened its offensive after a booby-trap bomb killed a child in southern Lebanon, prompting Hezbollah guerrillas to retaliate by firing Katyusha rockets into Israel. No Israelis died but Israel killed almost 200 Lebanese civilians.

"It took tremendous courage for Mr Bittar to file the petition in the UN - the only process available to him to seek redress for the murder of his children," Mrs Ramadan says. "It was not an easy decision, given his fear that Israel will retaliate against his family. They are entitled to the protection of American laws." Among the evidence submitted by Mr Bittar and other survivors petitioning the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is an article from the Israeli paper Kol Hair, in which the gunners who killed the civilians at Qana refer to them by the racist epithet "Arabushim" and suggest that their deaths did not matter.

A preliminary hearing of Mr Bittar's appeal against deportation has set 1 November as a trial date for his request for protection under US refugee laws - which require his family to prove that they have a "well- founded" fear of persecution if returned to Lebanon. As for Mr Bittar's mother, whose arm was severed in the Israeli shelling, she remains in Lebanon without a visa to the US - even though a hospital in Detroit has officially said that it will treat her and provide her with a prosthesis free of charge.

She was able to provide the US embassy in Damascus with proof that she had substantial funds in Lebanon, and that she did not wish to stay in the US. But the American consul in Damascus wrote to her to say that: "Applicants who are granted visas must have good living circumstances in their country of residence... but at this time your circumstances do no not [sic] prove such commitments. Thus... we are unable to approve your request for a visa." If her "personal circumstances" changed, the consul said, she could apply again - but "due to the high demand on appointments for visas in Damascus, we can schedule only two appointments per year for every applicant".

In his petition to the UN, Mr Bittar has described the Qana massacre in dreadful detail; he cites his children's "violation of the right to life" and claims that the slaughter was an act of genocide. He includes documentation that an Israeli pilotless reconnaissance aircraft flew over the Qana camp at the time of the killings, along with cuttings from The Independent which first revealed the presence of the plane. He fears that the Israelis, once they know of his petition, will try to kill him and his family if they return to their village. And he now has 10 months before a trial that will decide whether he, his wife and two of their children should be sent back to the killing fields of southern Lebanon.