Reality bites for the PR men at Qana

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The Independent Online
Herve de Charette's face was as white as death. The French Foreign Minister, neatly clad in blue suit and tie, had gingerly walked through the scene of last week's massacre at the UN's compound, nodding diplomatically as the UN's Fijian commander described the 12 minutes in which Israeli shells slaughtered up to 120 refugees, the sliced-up corpses that his soldiers were forced to pick up, the difficulty in identifying parts of the children who had been torn to pieces. Mr de Charette listened with distaste. But then he was confronted by a survivor.

Fawzaya Zrir, a small, frail woman in a scarf, simply walked up to the French foreign minister and began talking to him with an odd mixture of affection and anger. "For us, France is our mother and God is our father," she said in a flight of rhetoric that might have been written by the Quai d'Orsay public relations men, who beamed happily at this fortunate encounter.

Then things began to go wrong. "We have lived through hell," Mrs Zrir continued. "The people were chopped into pieces by the Israeli bombs. They bleed, these people. You should have seen the heads."

At the French foreign minister's right, a Lebanese softly translated the woman's dreadful words. The PR men began to look uneasy. "We have lived here 40 years and now we are treated like animals," the woman cried. "Do you know what the dogs did at night after the killings? They were hungry and I saw them in the ruins eating fingers and pieces of our people."

Mr de Charette stared at her as if he had seen a ghost. This had clearly not been part of the programme, a schedule that was supposed to have whisked the foreign minister from a light lunch at UN headquarters in Naqqoura to a photo-opportunity on the roof of the wrecked UN battalion HQ, a three- minute press conference to give the impression of openness and a swift drive back to the coast and a helicopter to Beirut - everything, in fact, that would enhance France's much-trumpeted love for Lebanon. Reality had very definitely not been part of the programme.

A UN soldier was quite blunt about it. "This place is going to be turned into one of those awful pilgrimage sites for the great and the good," he muttered."Boutros-Ghali sent his emissaries today to express their horror. But they'll do no more than they did after Srebrenica. They'll tut-tut and shrug it off. This is all for show. And they won't even have the guts to condemn Israel - even now - for this wickedness."

And indeed, the UN Secretary-General did send General Frank Van Kappen of the Netherlands army - not, perhaps, a happy choice after the Dutch army's disgrace at Srebrenica - and he duly marched round the site of the worst carnage, asking how many rounds landed, where the Katyusha missiles were fired from and whether he could be shown this site to discover if any Israeli shells had fallen there.

He would be meeting with General Amnon Lipkin Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff, he said. Yes, he would be asking to meet the soldiers who fired the fatal artillery rounds - "fat chance of that," another UN soldier said as he listened to all this - and with that, Van Kappen, an immense figure in his steel flak jacket and huge helmet clanked out of the compound with a colonel from the Royal Engineers.

Mr de Charette was even more gentle of spirit. What had happened on Thursday was "unfortunate", an event for which France wished to show its sympathy for the Lebanese. So how did it rank in the scale of civilian atrocities? How did it rank, for example, beside the Sarajevo market massacre?

"Frankly," the Foreign Minister replied sharply, "I have not had an opportunity to make categories of unhappiness. What we have to work to do is to make it impossible for this to happen in the future in Lebanon." And so say all of us. Did he believe Israel had given sufficient explanation of the massacre? "I hear there is an inquiry. We have to await the results."

The problem, however, is that neither America nor Europe are going to condemn the country which pounded the refugees of Qana with 155mm shells for 12 minutes; and such condemnation is about the only palliative that the Lebanese might accept for the moment.

And you can see their point. On the coast road back to Beirut last night there were burning cars, civilians deliberately targeted by Israeli warships north of Sidon, three of whom had been badly wounded. Had this been a Syrian warship shelling Israeli civilians on the Haifa-Tel Aviv road, of course, Mr Clinton himself would have deplored - rightly - an act of "international terrorism".

But not a word of criticism about this scandalous targeting of Lebanese civilians was uttered by the foreign ministers of America, Russia, France and Italy as they sought to bring an end an apparently unstoppable war.

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