SHE HOLDS the snapshot very tightly in her hands, as if it will bring her son back to life in the little room in the slums of Shiyah. The woman on the left of the picture is Nakhla herself in a white scarf, and the man on the right, his arm on her left wrist and staring into the camera with dull eyes, is her son Samir. When the photograph was taken, he had perhaps 12 hours left to live.

'We had a home in Chakra in the south and we had a place here in Beirut,' Nakhla says. 'We were always moving. When the shelling got bad here, we went down south. Then, when the Israelis invaded, we came back to Beirut. Samir was a good boy, but as the years went by he became very religious. He started reading the Koran and other religious books. He sat up all night reading the Koran. I would find him there in the early hours, reading to himself.'

His wooden table is still in the house, religious texts stacked across it with red and green spines and titles in gold leaf. 'He was going to be an architect but he became very angry at all that was happening, at our suffering. He went to the mosque very often to pray and he would go away for long periods. He never told us what he was doing but we guessed he had joined the resistance. We never knew he was in Hizbollah until he was killed. I think he used to go away for training. Our family is not with Hizbollah but he thought very seriously about God and he was very strict and he wanted to fight Israel.'

There are old family portraits of Samir in the room, all carrying a black bar across the top left-hand corner. In strange contrast, there is also a framed reproduction of an unveiled woman in a red scarf, hanging immediately above Samir's pictures as if protecting his spirit. 'We had that picture in the family so many years, but Samir disapproved of it. He wanted us to take it down. He said it was wrong to have a picture of a woman like that. But when he was gone, we just left it there. You can have it if you want it and take it away with you. Samir was like that. He was so serious.

'In the summer of 1989, we were back in Chakra, in the village. He was very popular there. He was head of the village football team. One day - I remember he had been playing football in the afternoon, against Irish soldiers in the United Nations force, I think - he came to our home and suddenly said to me: 'Mother, I want a picture of you with me'. I didn't understand. I said: 'Why? Why do you want a picture of me?' He just said he wanted it taken. He must have known, you see, that he was probably going to be killed on an operation. He must have realised he would be leaving that night. So we had the picture taken, with me not knowing the reason why. Next morning, we were listening to the Israeli radio news in Arabic and we heard there'd been an operation, that three resistance men had attacked an Israeli position near our village. The radio said one of them had been killed, a second captured and that another had got away. Then a Hizbollah official came to see us and said that Samir had been martyred.'

Nakhla uses the word 'martyred' without any sense of embarrassment. The Israelis, of course, referred on their radio to her dead son as a 'terrorist'. 'He wanted to liberate his country - that's why he died,' Nakhla says. 'We know that. Hizbollah came later and offered to help us with money. But we said we didn't want it. We are not a Hizbollah family and we don't want money - we want our son back.'

Back? Nakhla retreats into a narrow, unlighted corridor of hope. 'We heard from . . .' - and here there is a discreet, militia-filled pause - 'well, from some 'sources' that Samir might have been taken prisoner, that he is now being held in a prison at Askalan (Ashkelon) in Israel. Do you think that could be true? Can you ask the International Red Cross for me?'

Then there is another pause. 'No, I think he is dead - but it would help to know the truth.'

(Photograph omitted)