Lebanon flies the flags of mourning

Middle East peace: Ceasefire holds as villagers bury their dead and troops begin to repair the shattered infrastructure
Click to follow
All week, the black flags will be flying in Lebanon. Yesterday, they flew in Nabatiyeh for a mother and her seven children and her future son- in-law, who were buried amid scenes of grief and anger in the market town where an Israeli helicopter pilot fired a missile into their home on 18 April. The black flags hung, too, at the tiny village of Mansuri where they buried four children killed when another Israeli helicopter pilot deliberately targeted the ambulance in which they were travelling five days earlier.

In Qana tomorrow, the black flags will hang from every house in the shell-smashed town, as at least 100 of the Lebanese refugees massacred in the United Nations compound on 18 April are placed in a mass grave next to the UN post in which they were killed by Israeli shells. Each of the bodies will be laid in a brick-lined cavity although many legs, arms and hands which could not be identified will be interred together.

UN personnel have asked if they may be permitted to mount an honour guard at what will be the most traumatic mass burial in Lebanon since the Sabra and Chatila massacres of 1982. One UN official, so moved by the killing of so many civilians under the UN's protection, has asked if troops of the international peace-keeping force could carry the bodies to the graves, although his request is likely to be turned down.

A man and a woman who were also killed in the Israeli attack on the ambulance will be buried later in the week in their home village inside the Israeli occupation zone. Family members are awaiting Israeli permission for the corpses to be taken across the front lines from the mortuary in Sidon. Still more funerals will be held later in the week. Only at the weekend did returning Lebanese refugees discover the body of a shepherd lying in a field near Nabatiyeh beside his dead flock. He had apparently been killed in an Israeli air attack in the first day of the offensive. His body was badly decayed and could not be identified.

In Nabatiyeh yesterday, thousands of mourners followed the bodies of Fawzieh Hawajah and her family as they were carried into the town's cemetery, the youngest of her children - a baby only four days old - a tiny bundle under a grey blanket. Women collapsed at the graveside and a banner strung across the road outside read, in poor but all too angry English: "Damn on you American black peace."

With tragic irony, Lebanon's week of funerals coincides with the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, when Muslims across Lebanon should have been celebrating the most important day in the Islamic calendar, when the Prophet Abraham - or Ibrahim - killed a lamb rather than his own son. In southern Lebanon, however, the remainder of the half million refugees driven from their homes by the Israelis were returning to find houses destroyed, water pipes broken and every main road cratered by aerial bombs. Lebanese troops have been drafted south to repair the highways and water supply while 300 linemen have been sent to restore electrical power.

UN troops in southern Lebanon have reported no ceasefire violations although the Lebanese have discovered that the terms of the truce - which forbid the Israeli army and the Hizbollah from shooting at or from civilian areas - are already being interpreted with a double standard. While President Bill Clinton has called on Syria and Lebanon to keep to their ceasefire commitments, General Amnon Lifkin Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff, has stated that his soldiers would strike at Hizbollah "anywhere in Lebanon" if they attack Israeli forces in the occupied zone. If Hizbollah men "hide" in civilian areas, he said, "civilians may be hurt".

If the general is serious - and not merely speaking in rhetoric for public consumption in Israel - then the truce is likely to be short-lived. The ceasefire terms make no mention of where Hizbollah men may hide or live - only that they must not attack from an area in which civilians live. General Shahak alleged that 50 "terrorists" were killed in the Israeli bombardments, a claim wearily familiar to the Lebanese who remember scores of non-existent guerrillas supposedly killed in other disastrous Israeli military offensives in 1982 and 1993, and the equally non-existent "terrorists" whom Israel's Phalangist allies were supposedly killing when they massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Chatila camps.

Unfortunately for Lebanon, the only mass funerals this week are for civilians.