Christian Village Caught in the Crossfire
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
In Lebanon, Christian and Muslim leaders met in Beirut today and jointly denounced the Israeli offensive in south Lebanon. As NPR's Ivan Watson reports, the fighting has affected dozens of Christian villages near the border.
IVAN WATSON: The Archbishop of the Maronite Christian community in southern Lebanon, Shakril al-Nabil Hajj, took advantage of a lull in Israeli airstrikes today to visit some of his flock living in Christian villages near the border with Israel that have been cut off for weeks from the rest of the country. When he pulled up in front of a church in the shrapnel-strewn center of a village called Ein Abel, the handful of elderly residents still living here wept as they stepped forward to kiss the priest's hands and robes.
AL: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: God bless you, God protect you, he said, as Israeli artillery thundered in the distance, pounding a nearby village. Israel's pledge to reduce airstrikes in southern Lebanon for 48 hours did not extend to its tanks and artillery, which have already done extensive damage to this small community.
Terez Suliman(ph) shows where several Israeli shells hit the side of her house last week and set fire to several rooms. Her husband was wounded in the attack, but Suliman says she's not going anywhere.
REEZ SULIMAN: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: My children went to Beirut but I am not leaving, she says. I'm staying here where I was born. This is my country.
Suliman and several other elderly relatives have set up camp in her basement, with sandbags and sheets of metal placed outside the room's two small windows. But the threat here seems to come from two sides. Suliman says Hezbollah fighters came last night and fired rockets at Israel from the hillside right below her house.
SULIMAN: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: We were too scared to tell them to leave this place, she cried. A 28yearold local who only gives his first name, Pierre, says Hezbollah has put this Christian community in danger.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
Unidentified Man #2: Now what he's saying is, they [unintelligible] Hezbollah, they love Hezbollah, but what Hezbollah is doing today, they don't approve of it because they are firing rockets from between houses and they say this is why most of the houses are hit.
WATSON: Around the corner from Terez Suliman's house, George Hasrooni shows pieces of Israeli shrapnel scattered around his yard.
GEORGE HASROONI: This bomb. Came from bomb.
WATSON: Inside the house, Hasrooni's wife, Lamia(ph), shows the unexploded Israeli artillery shell that smashed through a wall in the house last week and now lies on the floor of her bathroom.
LAMIA HASROONI: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: I don't know where it came from, she says. We were sleeping in the basement and we heard explosions. And later, she adds, I found this bomb in my bathroom.
The nearby village of Hanin was shrouded in smoke and dust today from constant Israeli artillery bombardment. You could see the fighting through the window of a partially burned living room, where the Archbishop sat drinking bitter coffee and talking with the assembled residents of the village. The priest says this tiny Christian minority is caught in the middle of a conflict between Hezbollah's Shiite militia and the Israeli military.
Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: These people are lost. They don't know what to do, Haj says. Almost all the roads to this village are blocked and the United Nations Security Council is blocked, too. We can only hope in God, he says, because there is no hope left in man.
As the Archbishop prepared to leave the village, he came across a convoy of more than ten cars packed with fleeing families. The roof of each car was draped with a white bedsheet. One elderly passenger crossed herself as the refugees drove past the church in the center of the village.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Ein Abel, Lebanon.