Front Line: Rait, Eastern Lebanon - Martyred by a nation, missed by just one man Martyrs of war mourned by only one man

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL CALLED it an "error", and the world forgot. In the days that followed the killing of Mohamed Othman's wife and six of his children, no television crews trooped up the mountainside of eastern Lebanon to interview the grief-stricken shepherd.

But after the Israeli jets bombed his tent and destroyed his family at Janta just before Christmas, the Hizbollah fired a few rockets back at Israel and Israel warned of retaliation against Lebanon and Syria if such "terrorism" continued. That's what the television boys were keen to report. Heightened tension in the Middle East.

So much, then, for 40-year- old Nadwa Othman and her six children; one- year old Sobhi, four-year-old Ali, nine-year-old Aida, 11-year-old Soad, Amin, 16 and Amini, 17. Israeli spokesman David Bar-Ilan said it was a "mistake" when the Israeli jets fired two air-to-ground missiles into their home. Just as Israel apologised for the "mistake" of bombing a house in the Lebanese town of Nabatea five years ago (killing 13) and for the "tragic error" of the Qana massacre two years later when Israeli artillerymen slaughtered 106 Lebanese refugees.

When I approach the ramshackle tent to which Mohamed Othman has moved with his surviving 14-year-old son Ala'e on the hillsides above the frosty little village of Rait, he shakes his head in near-disbelief. No one from the outside world had bothered to talk to him about his loss.

His new home is the same as his old home: two dozen canvas sacks sewn together, laid over wooden sticks, an old red rug providing a dark inner sanctum over which the wind howls. He is wearing a brown robe and a red- and-white keffiyeh head-dress and he kneels on the floor to tell his story.

"Ala'e was in the fields near our home with our sheep and I had gone to get the three eldest from school in Janta. I had bought some food to break our fast for our Iftar meal - it was Ramadan then - and I stopped to talk to a friend on the road. I told my eldest son Amini to take the other children home. After about a quarter of an hour, I heard aircraft."

"I ran towards my home to be there so that my wife and children wouldn't be frightened. I must have been a kilometre away and I saw the planes right above the tent and two missiles leave one of the planes. Out of fright, I ran off the road and threw myself on the ground. The impact of the missiles was so enormous that the ground shook and I was hurled into the air and down again and lost consciousness.

"I woke in a hospital bed to find some Lebanese asking me how many children I had. Then I knew they had died."

Ala'e survived, though Mohamed's 200 sheep were killed by the blast of the Israeli missiles. It was Ala'e who reached the two scorched craters on the hillside. "They were all killed at once," Mohamed Othman says. "He found the bodies of his mother and brothers and sisters all on fire. There wasn't much left of them."

Mohamed Othman accompanied their few remains back to his native village of Tufail close to the Syrian border where he had grown up with Nadwa and made an arranged marriage with the woman when she was 20. "I haven't put any stones over their graves yet but when I do, I shall write the word `martyr' on each one," Mr Othman says. "What else can I write?"

Draped along the wall of his tent is a sheet upon which villagers have painted two Israeli planes dropping a bomb on a shack. In the sky above, the faces of his wife and six children appear, with crude angels' wings painted on each side of them. Mohamed Othman is obviously proud of the picture.

So what did the Israelis think they were bombing on 22 December 1998?

A mile away, down a narrow ravine on the other side of Janta, there is a Hizbollah training camp. It had been bombed before, many times. So had the T-junction outside the camp. A smashed armoured personnel carrier still lies in broken trees beside it. But the impact craters of the missiles that killed Mohamed Othman's family - and the few scraps of cloth from his tent home - are almost a mile away, on a narrow lane beside an unfinished building. This was an "error" on a massive scale for a jet fighter with computerised targeting systems.

It didn't matter. Typical of the international coverage of this dreadful deed was that of Canadian television which began its report with pictures of the Hizbollah's exploded rockets in northern Israel, an account of injured Israelis (they suffered shock and cuts - there were no deaths) and a sound-bite from the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowing revenge for a "terrorist" action. Only then - and briefly - did the CBC news show a clip of the Othman family's funeral with just a mention of what provoked the Hizbollah rocket fire. The report ended with more threats by Israel to retaliate for "terrorism".

I asked Mohamed Othman what he thought of all this. He sat for a long time on the red rug of his tent and looked towards the light coming through a crack in the old sacks. "Each person must be accountable to his conscience," the shepherd said.

"I still go to the graves every day when I am in my village and I talk to my wife and children. I say to them "God have mercy on you - and may you live in heaven."