Defiance in the orange groves

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The Independent Online
Captain Ole Tomb was leading our little United Nations convoy across the battlefield of southern Lebanon. Not an auspicious name, I had to admit, as a muffled roar from far out over the orange groves set the UN radios crackling. "Two Katyushas," a Fijian voice said. The thump of Israeli shells followed, and a grey cloud rose from behind the hill line. All around us, the orchards spread away, deep green foliage lit by the golden, unpicked fruits.

We were carrying milk powder, tinned meat and fruit to two villages inside the battle zone, two hamlets set on rocky plateaux where a few hundred Lebanese civilians stubbornly refuse to leave their homes only a mile or so from the Israeli gun line. Could anyone want to go on living through this, I had to ask myself as the shells went on cracking into the neighbouring village of Qleile. Their detonation changed the air pressure over the glistening orchards.

But when we arrived in Buyut es-Saed there they were, smiling women and elderly men, a schoolmaster and a clutch of children, walking out of their houses to greet us. Polish UN troops began to unload the sacks of food. We heard the jet before Captain Tomb caught sight of the spray of phosphorus dripping bright and pink through the sky, a decoy for heat seeking missiles that always precedes an air strike.

From the orchards where the Katyusha had been fired there was a hollow explosion and a brown cloud of smoke rose over the orange trees. The UN radio broke in. "Two Katyushas." This time they were being fired from Qabriqa, far to the north west. The villagers of Buyut es-Saed paid scarcely any attention. They just went on unloading their precious supplies, courteously shaking hands with the UN soldiers.

A humanitarian affairs officer took notes. A woman had given birth three days ago; she needed medical attention. A herd of 2,000 goats had wandered into the village two days ago and the people were trying to water them although no-one knew from what village bombardment the animals had fled.

I found the schoolmaster, Hassan Safiedin, near the UN truck. Why did he stay, I asked him, when 400,000 had fled? "It is our duty to stay on our land. It is better we should die here than run away. This is my land, my house, my home, my family. The three children killed in the ambulance [attacked by an Israeli helicopter] near here were all in my school. My children were in their class. But we must stay here all the same, to prevent any other people from taking our land.

"Why do the Israelis stay on our land?" Here the schoolmaster looked up at the Israeli gun emplacement above us. "If they would leave, the war would end. Yes, I am afraid, and so are all the people here. There are 120 of us. Yes, we would be very happy if the Israelis left and the Lebanese army came here to protect us."

We drove out of the village and back to the coast road, past the shattered ambulance, unloading more food to a Fijian UN position. And on to Batulay, the shells still swishing overhead, the same delighted faces - there were up to 700 people here who had refused Israel's orders to leave their homes.

The women walked down from their homes, some carrying children, others with middle-aged, frightened husbands. And they smiled so happily to welcome the foreigners who could not protect them, who could only hand out food and retreat to the coast, who six days ago in Qana were unable to save the lives of just such trusting, innocent people from Israel's shells.

In the jeep, the radio continued the war across southern Lebanon. "Three Katyushas," it barked. This time at Ghandouriyeh, probably fired at Kiryat Shmona. It was like a sinister football report, each incoming Israeli round, each outgoing Katyusha logged in dry military jargon. And all the while the oranges glowed from the dark orchards.