Five hours of hate town can't forget

THE MOMENT you drive into Masser es-Chouf, 4,000 feet up the Barouk foothills, the snow threatening behind the autumn leaves and the piled cumulus, you know there is something dreadfully wrong about the town. It's not just the still-ruined 19th-century Ottoman houses of dressed stone with their cracked windows and rusting balconies, nor the squad of sharp-eyed soldiers guarding the deserted square. It's not even the slim, brown-eyed Christian I'd met back in Beirut, shouting about his parents' massacre, bellowing his intention to shoot the two Druze who slaughtered them. What tells the story is my camera. Every time I bring it out to take a picture, the Druze of Masser es-Chouf melt into their little shops and alleyways. With my eyes, I see people. The moment I look through the lens, the streets are empty.

I've been in countless other Massers in Lebanon, and then in Bosnia - the tiny village of Cela near Prijedor comes to mind, the Serbs steadily "cleansing" their Muslims down to the bone - but the message of this Lebanese mountain town is infinitely more depressing because it is supposed to be a message of hope. For the ghosts of Masser es-Chouf - 63 of them to be precise, women and children as well as men from Masser's Catholic community, all cut down by their Druze neighbours between 10am and 3pm on 4 September 1983 - were supposed to have been laid to rest earlier this month when their remains were dug out of two mass graves and solemnly placed in a new sepulchre behind the local church.

True, they could only find enough bones and skulls from the Mountain War massacre to fit into four white-painted coffins but this was a symbolic occasion, the Christian president of Lebanon and Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze clan, sitting next to each other as Marun Saad, the oldest of the dispossessed Christians, embraced the oldest Druze sheikh. Both communities admitted they had watched the television reports from Bosnia with familiar horror. If only, sighed the Lebanese, their country could be put together again five years after the end of the 15-year civil war. And if only the same bandages could be wrapped around a thousand Bosnian villages.

The modalities, as they say, were simple at Masser. Marouf Azzam, the local Druze Socialist Party militiaman accused of directing the massacre, would stay away from Masser for two years. And Chawkat Chakar, the young Christian who in 1990 took his own revenge for the death of his parents in the massacre by returning to Masser and murdering five Druze villagers and three soldiers, would be exiled abroad forever. And true enough, when I found four middle-aged Druze shopkeepers in Masser es-Chouf - all members of the Azzam clan - they dutifully parroted Jumblatt's worthy aspirations. "We must look to the future and forget the past," Ihsam Azzam announced. "Only by uniting can we ensure the future of our children."

The massacre had occurred at the height of the Lebanese mountain war as the Israeli army withdrew its occupation forces from the Chouf, they said. True. On other parts of the Chouf, Christians had murdered Druze. True. Seven men from one Masser family had already been murdered by Christians in east Beirut. True. Israeli troops had watched the killings from armoured vehicles and done nothing. True. Indeed, both Christians and Druze admitted that the Israelis had armed each of their militias before the war - I watched them doing so myself at the time - and when they left, the Israelis fired star shells into the sky to signal the kick-off of the fighting. I saw them do that, too. But how did a Druze come to kill his neighbour?

"I will tell you this," Ihsam's cousin Nizal Azzam said; he was dressed in black with a white Druze cap on his head and his words held a dreadful import for Bosnia. "The Christians were our neighbours and our friends. We went to their weddings and they came to ours. But the day we saw the Christian militias bringing arms to them from Beirut, they ceased to be our friends. They kept arms in the church down the road. We had to fight the Christians in the church after they attacked Marouf Azzam. The priest had a gun and was fighting and he was shot dead too. If he had not been armed, we would have spared him." It was a scene from Ken Loach's new Spanish civil war epic Land and Freedom - the Christian fighters in the church, the armed priest, the execution - but Masser es-Chouf's massacre was real.

Of four men in the village square, only Nizal was prepared to admit his presence at the massacre. "There were men and women. The Christians were taken from their homes to be shot. I saw the bodies, yes. But I promise you there was no mutilation." And he drew his hand across his throat to show me what had supposedly not happened.

Twelve miles away in the Ein el-Rumaneh suburb of east Beirut, I found Michel Njeim serving cheese pastries in his bakery, still mourning his father Adib and mother Nohat, both in their early fifties, who were shot in the doorway of their family home on that fateful day. "No one from that town fought the Druze," he said. "Most of them were in Jumblatt's Socialist Party and thought they had nothing to fear. About 35 of the dead were women and children. Yes, they were mutilated. Many had their throats cut. I know the names of the two Druze who killed my father and mother." He named them. "I intend to take my revenge; if I don't manage to, then when I marry my daughters, I will tell their Christian husbands to take revenge for me. These Druze men had gone to my home and said to both my parents: 'This town must be Druze' and shot both of them with a Kalashnikov. Most of the bodies were cut up into pieces and thrown down two holes and burned. This was why there were so few remains."

But, I said - ever the well-meaning Western liberal - how could his 13-year-old daughter Rita and his six-year-old daughter Tanya be happy if their future husbands were married into the blood feud?

I thought for a moment that Michel Njeim was close to tears, especially when I told him I thought he was a very sad man. Then he stubbornly shook his head. "Do you know how I feel? I was the only one of my father's sons who joined the Christian militia. He would cry when I told him what I did. But do you want me to forget them? Yes, you tell me that Masser is a beautiful town. You are right. But for me it will only be truly beautiful when there are only Christians living there. I hope that all the Christians of Masser es-Chouf will do what Chawkat did. He is my cousin. And he has not left Lebanon."

I said that this held little hope for Bosnia. "They had a reason to kill in Bosnia," he said. "That was a war. Here there was no reason. The Lebanese learned nothing from the war." And listening to his anger piling up like the cumulus over Masser es-Chouf, I found it difficult to shake off the suspicion that he was right; that the lessons, if understood, had not been accepted, that the bandages so carefully wrapped around Masser es- Chouf were made of paper.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick