Lebanon's dispossessed come home: Robert Fisk in Damour on the scars of an orgy of ethnic cleansing

 

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The Independent Online

Georges Naufal was standing next to the Christian home from which he was ethnically cleansed 17 years ago. 'Those of us who lived in the centre of Damour hid in the church for the night as the shells fell around us,' he said, prowling along the back of the broken- walled villa in which he once lived with his mother and father.

'How can we forget what happened? It was 22 January. We knew the Palestinians and Muslim forces were coming. It was our last night here. We had no time to take our belongings. In the church, 450 of us spent the night, along with Father Labaki. That day, my nephew, Antoine Chahoub, had been killed in the old palace on the hill above us, hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was only 20. At daybreak, we ran from the village down to the old silk factory and sheltered there from the shells. The Christians sent boats down the coast from Jounieh and Bylbos to rescue us.'

Damour, the first town to be ethnically cleansed in the Lebanese civil war, was a pretty Christian Maronite coastal hamlet that dated back to the Crusades and made its living from the mulberry groves and silk factories that lay along the Mediterranean. It stood on the highway to Beirut, blocking the path of the Palestinian and leftist forces fighting their way up from Sidon in the ninth month of the war. What happened when they stormed into the town in 1976 provided - had the world but known it - a terrible harbinger of things to come in a more northerly corner of the old Ottoman empire.

As 15,000 Christians fled for their lives, gunmen stormed into Damour, 'executing' the surviving Christian fighters and taking prisoner almost 250 civilians. From these, the militiamen - many high on hashish - separated several young women and gang-raped them. Then they slaughtered the girls, along with the rest of their 250 captives. Systematically, the gunmen blew up or burnt every house in the town. As an afterthought, they dug up the local graveyard and hurled its long-dead occupants on to the road.

Georges Naufal, 45 years old and balding, understands the terrible precedents of his own experience. 'I see Bosnia-Herzegovina on the television news every night and it's like I am reliving my own life. There is no difference between what happened here and what is happening there. Maybe the Yugoslavs learned from us - we taught them and now they imitate us.'

Of course, it is not exactly the same. More than 150,000 people died in Lebanon's 15-year war. Almost as many have died in ex-Yugoslavia in 15 months. But the parallels are frightening, the lessons even more alarming. Damour was destroyed in revenge for the Christian massacre of Muslim Palestinians in the Karantina camp - itself the first stage in the 'purification' (the Christian Phalangist militia used this word at the time) of Palestinians and Muslim Lebanese from east Beirut. The second stage, partly in retaliation for the Damour massacre, was the annihilation of the Tel el-Zaatar Palestinian camp. Christians killed more than 2,000 prisoners, including children, nurses and old women.

The PLO resettled the survivors in Damour. They were forced out in 1982 when the Israeli army captured the town and brought back their Christian allies. For three years, Damour was Christian again, in ruins but infested with a rag-tag of Christian militiamen until they in turn were driven out by the Druze, who settled their own people amid the wreckage. They are still there, sitting on bullet-scarred balconies or living in cracked rooms with hardboard windows. Most of Damour is now a field of crushed masonry and stones, toppled apartments and scorched interiors. Take away the bushes that have grown round the empty door lintels, the thorns and grass creeping across the overgrown rose gardens, the trees sprouting out of shattered villas, and you could be in Vitez or Mostar or any of the scorched Muslim towns around Prijedor.

A drive into Damour is a trip into the history of Bosnia. Yet, even now, the Lebanese have not begun to comprehend its meaning. Half a million of them were displaced by the war, most of them deliberately driven from their homes by militiamen of a rival religious community. A quarter of a million of them were Druze and Christians who 'cleansed' each other from their homes in the 1983 Chouf mountain war.

Bosnia has not yet finished its orgy of cleansing, but Lebanon is now facing the price of its own, trying to resettle the still angry tens of thousands - with their immutable internal wounds - back in their own home villages, among the very people who, in many cases, they blame for their suffering. This epic task is nowhere better illustrated than in the offices of the Ministry for Displaced People, installed, with infinite irony, at one end of Damour's devastated main street. It is a place of good intentions that belies the fact that the ethnic and religious map of Lebanon has been changed forever.

A sad queue of Shias, Christians, Druze and Sunnis stand outside a small room where a Lebanese civil servant gently takes them through the form-filling which is supposed to reverse their own dispossession and absolve the evil of 'ethnic cleansing'. A small unshaven man stands at the front of the queue, shy, frightened of bureaucracy but brave enough to claim his rights, clutching in his left hand a plastic bag crammed with land deeds and identity papers. 'Name?' asks the civil servant. 'Abdel- Karim Jlous, born in Al-Qwai, Bekaa governorate, in 1950. I am a hospital worker. I was driven from my home in Bourj Hammoud-Naba in 1976.' He looks ill - he is squatting today in southern Beirut - but his face lights up as the official completes the form. 'Religion?' he is asked. 'Shia,' replies Jlous, one of the many thousands of Muslims 'purified' from Christian east Beirut at the start of the war.

The Minister of Displaced People is Walid Jumblatt, a man whose own wartime Druze militia played a leading role in cleansing Lebanon in the 1983 mountain war. In that conflict, Christian militiamen raped Druze women motorists - one of their first victims was a midwife from Ein el-Mreise, taken from her car above Kahale, gang-raped, knifed and thrown down a well - while Druze gunmen murdered Christian drivers.

Jumblatt is tall and thin, devastatingly frank in his comments, a unique mixture of nihilism, despair and genuine pity who has won the respect of his former Christian opponents, many of whom, he insists, must be resettled back on their land in Damour by the end of next month. 'You say that what happened here was ethnic cleansing, but this is not true - it was religious cleansing,' he says, as if that subtle transition from tribe to theology will somehow atone for the past. 'When you see how many people from the same family share different religions - the Hanadis, for example, can be Druze or Shia - then you realise it was not 'ethnic cleansing'.'

Jumblatt runs through the years of dispossession: Lebanese Muslims and Palestinians driven from the south after Israeli attacks on their villages; the war between Palestinians and Lebanese Shias in 1985 and 1986; the original 1948 Israeli 'cleansing' of Palestinians to Lebanon. And, Israelis would add, the 1948 Arab armies' attempt to 'cleanse' Palestine of Israelis by 'driving the Jews into the sea'.

But was not Jumblatt's predecessor, Elie Hobeika, blamed by many Lebanese - and Israelis - for leading the Israeli-backed Phalange who committed the massacres at Sabra and Chatila? Was not Jumblatt himself responsible for 'cleansing' in the Chouf?

'Yes, I am responsible, directly or indirectly, for religious cleansing and mass destruction because, at the time, I was a warlord. But when you look back, it was all so stupid and so cruel. Bashir Gemayel (the Phalangist leader assassinated in 1982) helped to start it with this crazy idea that he had to 'protect' the Christians and send his militia in. I don't know what happened to us. What was it for? It was madness.' So what was Bosnia? Was there something in the nature of the land, the people, that made these horrors inevitable? Jumblatt, who speaks of the Balkan tragedy with both passion and sarcasm, raises his eyes to the ceiling. 'I don't know. I don't think Bosnia is going to stop now. All these delays by the Americans and the West are to make sure the Bosnians will flee the big cities and towns. They are not going to stay under UN protection like some specimen. The bulk of Muslims will just move on, maybe to Sarajevo. Then it's going to be Greater Serbia, supported by the Russians and the Orthodox Church, against Greater Croatia, supported by the Germans - who started all this in the Second World War.'

Unlike the Owen-Vance plan - a masterpiece of cynicism, in the eyes of many Lebanese - Jumblatt is trying to reverse the 'cleansing'. But he has discovered that it is a problem which physically grows. 'The refugees have had children who are now teenagers. But we are trying to resettle them, even though the job is enormous. I am getting Christians back to some villages. Christians thank me for this. Sometimes I get so many embraces, I think I should be a bishop or a patriarch.' And it is true that, in 1983, Jumblatt spared the surrounded Christian town of Deir el- Kamar, a little Srebrenica in the Chouf mountains.

But the UN never prevented Lebanon's 'cleansing', nor did the American, French, Italian and British troops who came here in 1982 and 1983. Jumblatt's contempt for them was savagely demonstrated when the UN last month accidentally sent him a fax (intended for the Lebanese foreign ministry) containing Security Council resolutions on Bosnia. Jumblatt cabled back to the Secretary General: 'Your resolutions on Bosnia are important but useless . . . We advise the United Nations to absolve itself. As to Bosnia, it is a new Palestinian tragedy.'

And likely, from Lebanon's example, to grow far larger. The computers beneath Jumblatt's office contain the detail of an awesome - impossible - task. They already hold 60,000 names; a further 6,000 have been added in the past two weeks, many of the applications stacked in pink and yellow folders in the computer room, the documentary evidence of war's cruelty. Seventy-two- year-old Saltani Hamouda wants to return to Furn el-Chebek, so does 66- year-old Samia Harmoush; Yussef Aoun and Yussef Boumardi want money to repair their homes in Damour.

Georges Naufal, with his memories of that last departure from Damour, has already come back. His is the only Christian Maronite family to return and live in the town, under the protection and guarantee of Jumblatt, to start work on the repair of his home. He lives in a temporary villa 100 metres from Jumblatt's office, working his orchards by day. 'The first month back, I was frightened at night,' he says. 'But it was my land, so I came back. What else should a man do?'

(Photograph omitted)

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