UN's perilous work in Lebanon

UN troops face danger daily as they deliver much-needed food to people stranded in southern Lebanon.

The villagers cluster eagerly around the white United Nations truck as French soldiers hand down boxes of military rations, enough to feed the residents of this besieged Christian village for a few more days.

After nearly a month of fighting, most of the Muslim villages along Lebanon's border with Israel have been abandoned, their residents joining the north-bound stream of refugees filling schools and parks in and around Beirut. But some 500 residents of Dibil have chosen to stay, a risky decision rooted in a stubborn attachment to their homes and a belief that this Christian village will be spared the worst of the onslaught directed against Israel's Shiite Hizbullah enemy.

"There's no Hizbullah here. All we want is to leave in peace," says Father Yussef Nadaf, the priest of Dibil, looking tired and unshaven, his white priest's collar hanging loosely from his black shirt.

With basic provisions on the verge of running out, these Christian villagers and the few elderly residents still living in the Shiite and Sunni villages along the border are relying on food handouts from the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL). Each day, UNIFIL attempts to dispatch armored convoys into the perilous battle zone east of their headquarters in the coastal village of Naqoura.

"The success of the convoys depends on the goodwill of the Israelis," says General Alain Pellegrini, UNIFIL's commander.

Once clearance is given by the Israeli military, the UN convoy of three trucks with an armored personnel carrier at either end departs from Naqoura, grinding along the narrow border road that winds up a steep brush-covered hillside riddled with Hizbullah dug-outs. Although the hillside is within full view of Israeli positions along the border, multiple air strikes and heavy shelling have not stopped the well-entrenched Hizbullah fighters from continuing to fire rockets into Israel. Even as the convoy was about to leave, two loud bangs and accompanying smoke trails marked the latest rocket barrage from the hill.

The border road technically lies behind Israel's front line. No Israeli soldiers are to be seen, but their tank tracks meander through tobacco fields and traverse the border road, the heavy steel treads ripping up chunks of asphalt. There is evidence, too, of the fierce fighting in the area. A burned out and abandoned tank lies on the side of the road a mile west of Aitta Shaab, its sleek lines blackened and charred, a victim of Hizbullah's anti-armor missiles.

Shelling and air strikes continue uninterrupted, the sharp blast of outgoing artillery rounds from nearby Israeli positions on the border and the crack of exploding shells in the hills, like a giant steel door being slammed shut. Some of the exploding rounds have set fire to the brush, turning wide swaths into blackened wasteland.

Dibil is the first stop for the UNIFIL convoy. Most of the villagers have gathered in the town's center, drawing closer to the stone church with its bright red tiled roof.

"We hear the tanks at night going past the village, but we are too scared to look," says Niveen Zeeni.

She says that the village has run out of flour, milk, and fuel for cars. There is no electricity, the land telephone lines have been cut, and the local cellular network is being jammed along the border.

"All we can do is pray," says Father Nadaf with a hopeless shrug.

If the mood in Dibil is one of resigned anxiety, in Jibbayn, a small Sunni Muslim village 1.5 miles north of the border, it is one of terror and desperation.

"Are you going to Tyre? Please take us with you," pleads one of two women who running from their house toward the UN convoy trundling into the village.

"They have bombed my house. They have destroyed everything and left us with nothing," wailed Mariam Hamza.

They say that the bodies of three people lie under the rubble of a bombed house and ask the UNIFIL troops to help remove them. Their fear is heightened by a barrage of shells exploding nearby and the sharp crack of outgoing artillery rounds from the border.

Israeli troops were operating unseen in the northern half of Jibbayn, blocking the road to Teir Harfa, the last village on the convoy's itinerary. The only other route to Teir Harfa follows a steep potholed track that drops into a deep valley. Warrant Officer Martin Lionel, the convoy commander, purses his lips as he studies the military map, assessing whether the trucks can make the journey. But there are other perils in the valley apart from bad roads. The area is a Hizbullah stronghold and a source of Katyusha rocket fire. Lionel decides against the trip.

"We don't even know if there's anyone left in Teir Harfa," he says, ordering the convoy to return to headquarters in Naqoura. "It's a very bad situation."

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