Robert Fisk: Untold story of the massacre of Marjayoun leaves blame on both sides of the border

Wednesday 23 August 2006 00:00

There are few marks on the road where the missiles hit the innocents of Marjayoun. But there are the memories of what happened immediately after the Israeli airstrike on the convoy of 3,000 people after dark on 11 August: a 16-year old Christian girl screaming "I want my Daddy" as her father's mutilated body lay a few metres away from her; the town mukhtar discovering that his wife, Collette, had been decapitated by one of the Israeli missiles; the Lebanese Red Cross volunteer who went into the darkness of wartime Lebanon to give water and sandwiches to the refugees and was cut down by another missile, and whose friends could not reach him to save his life.

There are those who break down when they recall the massacre at Joub Jannine - and there are the Israelis who gave permission to the refugees to leave Marjayoun, who specified what roads they should use, and who then attacked them with pilotless, missile-firing drone aircraft. Five days after being asked to account for the tragedy, they had last night still not bothered to explain how they killed at least seven refugees and wounded 36 others just three days before a UN ceasefire came into effect.

It is one of the untold stories of the Israeli-Hizbollah war; there are others - infinitely more bloody - but the ultimate tragedy of these largely Christian refugees involved a raft of Lebanese officers and ministers, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, the US ambassador and the Israeli Defence Ministry.

It all began on 10 August when the Israelis staged a small ground offensive into Lebanon after a month of massive bombing of Lebanese villages in the south. Brig-Gen Adnan Daoud, commanding a mixed force of 350 Lebanese paramilitary police and soldiers at the barracks in the pretty Christian town of Marjayoun, found a man at the gate at 9am, an Israeli officer calling himself Col Ashaya. Brig-Gen Daoud, whose men were not fighting the Israelis, called the Lebanese Interior Minister, Ahmad Fatfat, who "endorsed" - Fatfat's word - Daoud's decision to let him in. "Ashaya" spent four hours looking round the barracks to assure himself that there were no Hizbollah members there. Then he left. Daoud put a white flag on the guardhouse.

But at 4pm that afternoon, an Israeli tank unit approached the barracks and started to shoot their way in. Daoud was again told by Fatfat to let in the Israelis who, according to Daoud, informed him that "we are the occupiers and we are in charge". An Israeli officer then locked Daoud into a room.

Thousands of Christians in Marjayoun now feared for their lives. According to several aid workers, Hizbollah were firing rockets from behind the town's hospital, which was immediately abandoned by the Lebanese Red Cross. The inhabitants believed, with good reason, that Hizbollah's missiles would be redirected from Israel on to Marjayoun itself now that the town had been taken over by Israeli troops and tanks.

Locked in his room, Daoud now called Fatfat again and Fatfat called the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, who, by chance, was talking to the US ambassador to Beirut, Jeffrey Feltman. Feltman - either via the State Department or directly to the US embassy in Tel Aviv - told his diplomats to call the Israeli Defence Ministry; and they swiftly replied that there should be no Israeli troops in Daoud's barracks. But the Israelis in Marjayoun refused to believe what Daoud told them.

Marjayoun's inhabitants, however, were now in a state of panic and Daoud called Fatfat at 7pm to start arranging for a refugee convoy north from Marjayoun to Beirut. The Lebanese government, according to Fatfat, called the United Nations command in southern Lebanon at 5am the next day, 11 August, to seek clearance from the Israelis to allow the thousands of refugees to be convoyed north. The UN, according to the government in Beirut, subsequently notified Gen Abdulrahman Shaiti, assistant to the head of Lebanese military intelligence, that the convoy had permission from the Israelis to travel.

Two UN armoured vehicles, crewed by Indian troops, subsequently turned up in Marjayoun to find at least 3,000 people, including Shia Muslim refugees from the surrounding, devastated villages, waiting to leave. "We had a total agreement that they would go out to the Bekaa [Valley] from [Alain] Pellegrini [the UN commander]," Fatfat says. "The road was also agreed." But there were delays. Part of the road ahead had been heavily bombed and had to be repaired. It was 4pm before the convoy crept slowly out of Marjayoun, Daoud's 350 soldiers in the lead. The UN vehicles then abandoned the convoy at Hasbaya, the northern limit of UN operations, leaving the refugees dangerously exposed. The UN had already warned the Lebanese authorities that it was late for the convoy to leave.

"They went so slowly, I was enraged," a relief worker recalls. "People at friendly villages would come out and give the refugees food and water and want to talk to them and people would stop to greet old friends as if this was tourism. The convoy was only going at five miles an hour. It was getting dark." The 3,000 refugees now trailed up the Bekaa after nightfall and were approaching the ancient Kifraya vineyards at Joub Jannine when disaster struck them at 8pm.

"The first bomb hit the second car," Karamallah Dagher, a reporter for Reuters, said. "I was half way back down the road and my friend Elie Salami was standing there, asking me if I had any spare gasoline. That's when the second missile struck and Elie's head and shoulders were blown away. His daughter Sally is 16 and she jumped from the car and cried out: 'I want my Daddy, I want my Daddy.' But he was gone." Speaking of the killings yesterday, Dagher breaks down and cries. He tried to carry his arthritic mother from his own car but she complained that he was hurting her so he put her back in the passenger seat and sat beside her, waiting for a violent death which mercifully never came. But it arrived for Collette Makdissi al-Rashed, wife of the mukhtar, who was beheaded in her Cherokee jeep, and for a member of the Tahta family from from Deir Mimas, and for two other refugees, and for a Lebanese soldier and for 35-year-old Mikhael Jbaili, the Red Cross volunteer from Zahle, who was blasted into the air when a rocket exploded behind him.

"There was panic," the Marjayoun mayor, Fouad Hamra, said. "Many people drove away. They had a clearance; everything should have been OK. If Hizbollah was supposed to be carrying weapons at night, they would have been travelling in the opposite direction!"

Who flew the drones? An Israeli soldier of the invasion force? A nameless officer in the Israel Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv? The Israelis knew a civilian convoy was on the road. Yet they sent their pilotless machines to attack it. Why? Last night, the Israeli Defence Ministry had not responded to inquiries from reporters who asked for the answer last Friday.

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