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.

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