`Any chance of demolishing our minaret?'

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The Independent Online
A FEW days ago, a village delegation turned up to see Captain Sean Whelan, commanding the Irish United Nations troops on the edge of Bradchit. Would the Irish be kind enough to demolish the minaret of the local mosque, they wanted to know? The Israeli tank up on the hill behind the village had put 10 shells into the minaret in as many years and it was now in danger of crashing onto worshippers.

But Captain Whelan is as canny a man as ever patrolled a Shia Muslim village and shrewdly realised - once an Irish engineer had shinned up the building and pronounced it too dangerous to dismantle - that the UN might be charged for damage caused by the minaret's removal. Besides, the Irish had no wish for the word to go round that they were in the business of demolishing mosques - hitherto a Serb prerogative.

Since the Israelis had fired so many shells into Bradchit's minaret, they could probably have been asked to complete the job. Cracked and blasted, it stands eviscerated, steel tendons and wires dangling over the little village square, in full view of the Israeli Merkava tank which has tried so hard to destroy it. Abdul Hussein Shihab has good reason to know the tank's location. Not only did the Israeli gunners on the hilltop artillery compound above him kill his next-door neighbour, 80-year-old Zamzam Farhat, in 1996, but the land on which the tank is now positioned happens to belong to Mr Shihab himself.

"I have six parcels of land and only one is outside the Israeli occupied area," he says, a 67-year old tobacco farmer with no more tobacco to farm. "When I went to visit one of my bits of land between the village and the tank last month, they fired at me. Imagine, a farmer shot at for walking on his own land! But it is my land. I can't leave it because I was born here, like all my grandfathers, and stayed through all the war. Property is a birthright."

A very damaged birthright, one might have added. Half the houses in Bradchit look as if a monster has nibbled away at their walls. Mr Shihab's daughter Khadija shows me a shell-hole converted into a window.

Bradchit's fate is to be on the very edge of Israel's occupation zone in southern Lebanon. Its villagers include some of Lebanon's most efficient guerrillas - two of the three mayors elected this year are Hizbollah officials - who have twice stormed their way up the hill above Mr Shihab's home and captured the Israeli compound (once filming the operation as the Israelis ran away). Israeli retaliation has been ferocious. At least 60 men and women have been killed around Bradchit, one of them an Irish UN soldier who died in the room above Mr Shihab's house in 1980, torn to pieces by an Israeli fleshette round as he slept in his bunk.

Bradchit is a scruffy village of fly-blown wall posters (most of them Hizbollah) and lines of tobacco leaves hung out to brown in the unforgiving sun. Perhaps 100 of its 1,600 inhabitants are Catholics, the remainder Shias. They attend each other's funerals and weddings and feast days but do not intermarry. "I had an aunt who married a Muslim," Angele Bassilah tells me as she pushes bright green tobacco leaves onto a steel rod to dry, a kind of giant tobacco kebab. "It was a love match." And were their children Muslim or Christian, I ask cruelly. "Communist," she replies, and bursts into laughter.

Mr Shihab and his family say Bradchit got its name from a local prophet, Nabi Chit, who came down from the Bekaa to graze his sheep here in the Middle Ages. Angele Bassilah and her family - who claim their Italian ancestor arrived here from Jerusalem before the Crusades - say the village was founded by the third son of Adam who also, yes, came to graze his sheep here. Angele and her three sisters are in mourning for their cousin who has just died of cancer at the age of 35; all the Muslims have come to her home to pay their condolences.

They share life and death in Bradchit. The local Muslim graveyard lists those who were killed in the war as "martyrs" - Hizbollah dead carry a yellow flag on the grave - while the Bassilahs have lost another cousin to the war. "Our home is something special to us," Angele's father, Nasrallah, says. Bespectacled and unshaven, he grows corn and keeps a few cows. Of the sisters, only Angele works; she is a French teacher in the local school.

Just up the road, I meet the two Hizbollah mayors, Ali Shehab and Ali Abdul Nabi, tall, neatly bearded men in their thirties. The government has forgotten Bradchit, they claim. It was the Hizbollah who built the clinic in which we are sitting and installed an electrical grid in several of the streets and repaired many of the houses (after, it should be added, the Israelis were provoked into their revenge attacks by Hizbollah assaults on the tank compound). "It is a special village," Ali Shehab adds. "It is so beautiful in spring with its olive trees and springs."

But every village has its secrets. Three of its young men joined Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia, the very gunmen who sometimes fire into Bradchit with the Israelis. "One of them was called Hussein Abdul Nabi and he was a big criminal," Ali Shehab says. "The second was called Ahmed Salami. We killed both of them. There is a third. I used to play in the streets of this village with him as a boy. Now he lives in Bint Jbail with his wife, in the occupied zone. Soon he, too, is going to be killed."

Robert Fisk