Israel's victims buried to wails of rage

The coffins floated across the square on the uplifted palms of a thousand hands, eddying from side to side towards the mass grave of concrete and sand; and carried as they were on this human tide, the lids would slide off and the Lebanese flags would drift away onto the mourners and inside we would see the dead, wrapped in plastic sheets, sometimes so small that they could be taken from the coffin with one hand. There were at least 91 of them - although plastic bags contained parts of several bodies - and they were all laid gently below the wall of the UN battalion headquarters in which they were slaughtered by Israeli shellfire 12 days earlier.

In the Arab world, the dead are taken from their coffins and laid in the grave in mere shrouds. And yesterday, it was not the approaching funeral cortege that overwhelmed us with the sheer scale of the massacre but the empty thud of the used coffins as they were steadily piled to the right of the square, a hollow drumbeat that echoed dozens of times above the chanting of "God is Greater" and the angry roar of the mourners when a civil defence worker took a baby in a plastic bag out of its coffin. And all the while, the Fijian UN soldiers under whose protection these refugees died, stood on the roof of their wrecked compound and watched in silence.

"So many of these people were friends of ours," one of them whispered to me. "Do you see the girl in black?" He pointed to a young woman sitting on the edge of the grave, her feet hanging over the side, weeping and holding two framed photographs which she repeatedly kissed. "That is Leila Jaber. They killed her father and her sister." Another, older woman screamed in grief and tried to climb into the grave. A sea of upstretched hands sought to touch each coffin as it rode the swell above the crowds and when the Lebanese flags, red and white with a green cedar tree in the centre, fell off, young men would bind the flags around their waists or wrap them round their heads, less in patriotism than in the old tradition of giving life to some object associated with the dead.

The Qana scouts' band squeaked out a version of the Lebanese national anthem while, at the back of the crowd, from a side road, there emerged the tieless figure of the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, surrounded by bearded bodyguards. He was shown the shell- splattered walls of the UN compound and he watched for several minutes as the coffins moved into the square. Then he departed. Only one man tried to bring a Hizbollah flag to the funeral but the mourners, knowing that three Hizbollah men fired two Katyusha rockets 350 yards from the UN base just two minutes before the Israeli shells cut the refugees to pieces, drove him away.

Most, though not all, of the people of Qana support Amal, Hizbollah's Shia Muslim rival, and on the day before the funeral, both sides had fired shots in the air after disputing the other's right to fly their party flags. In the event, both the black, green and red Amal banner and the yellow and green flag of Hizbollah hung in the streets of the village. The Lebanese colours on the coffins at least preserved the neutrality of the dead.

Only one placard was carried by a mourner, a hand-written slogan which carried the words "History repeating itself" alongside a Swastika and a Star of David. For, however much Qana people may show their distaste for the Hizbollah, it is Israel that they blame for the 18 April 18 massacre and at whom their fury was directed yesterday. Some chanted "Death to Israel", although it was Sheikh Mehdi Shamsedin, the leader of the Shia Muslim sect in Lebanon who condemned the Israelis at the earlier, official memorial ceremony in the ancient Roman hippodrome at Tyre. "The Jews have created another Holocaust in Lebanon," he said.

However much the Israelis will be infuriated by such an assertion, and they chose yesterday, of all days, to announce that their own enquiry into the massacre absolved them of blame, it will be many years before the people of southern Lebanon can put this slaughter behind them. Indeed, the dead were exalted as symbols of national unity at the Tyre ceremony, which was attended by Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, and leading Muslim and Christian clergymen. "These martyrs represent our country," Mr Shamsedin said. "They ascended to God because of the Israeli assault." And then, praying over the coffins lined up before the Arch of Hadrian, he added: "We are not saying good-bye to you, because you remain with us and your spirits will always be a part of our consciousness."

Hizbollah members of the Lebanese parliament stood close to Mr Shamsedin. And close to Mr Hariri, tears running down his face, stood the unmistakable figure of General Ghazi Kenaan, the head of Syrian army intelligence in Lebanon.

President Hafez al-Assad of Syria was represented by Wahib al-Fadel, one of his senior ministers, the UN by 12 soldiers from each of the international contingents in southern Lebanon, including troops from Norway, Ireland, Ghana, France, Fiji and Nepal. Thus did the armies of three European countries, two of them Nato members, pay honour to the dead of Qana.

As for the soldiers still living in the wreckage of their smashed headquarters - tall, kindly and thoughtful Fijians, many of whom have learned Arabic during their tours of duty in Lebanon - they have been opening their base to mourners for three days already.

"They come in here from six in the morning to six in the evening, thousands of them, and we are friendly to them and let them walk around to see where the refugees died," one Fijian officer said quietly yesterday. "Frankly, I think we'll just have to move our headquarters from here. With the mass grave beside us, this is going to be a place of pilgrimage and tens of thousands of people are going to come here. It is no place for soldiers now."

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