Beirut family struggles with war's legacy

As the early morning sun breaks over a breezeblock cemetery wall, it finds an emotional Lebanese grandmother, Alia Amro, closely holding a portrait of the family she lost.

In the picture is Alia's smiling daughter Maya, with a white hijab, looking almost childlike beside her husband, Ali, an electrician. Between them nestles 4-year-old daughter, Riham, wearing a bead head covering and big-eyed smile.

All three were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Aug. 7 in an attack on a Beirut apartment building that killed more than 40 people – the largest single-event civilian death toll during a five-week war between Hizbullah and Israel last summer.

"Those people who send those smart bombs: They don't have kids," charges Mrs. Amro, taking a tissue from her handbag to wipe the marble grave that carries all three names.

"Those smart bombs don't know if it is children or warriors," says grandfather Said Yatim, noting that 14 children were killed in this strike. "Why do they call them 'smart' "?

Mr. Yatim's anger has barely abated since the Monitor first saw him and his wife last August, in shock as emergency workers pulled their dead granddaughter from the still-smoking rubble.

"The kids have nothing to do with missiles and bombs," Yatim wailed at the time as he reached out to touch Riham one more time. "Imagine if Americans were receiving this, and not Lebanese. If these were Americans dying in this massacre, what would they think?"

The views of this Shiite family, which mourns daily in this sandy cemetery, provide a case study on how many of those who suffered most during a 34-day Israeli blitz, sparked by Hizbullah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, still give Hizbullah blanket support.

"If you were in America and an invader came to your house, and burned and destroyed it, what would be your reaction?" asks Yatim, an electrical parts supplier who wears a thick black jacket against the morning chill. In a separate attack, the house of the grandparents was also destroyed; Hizbullah paid them $12,000 in compensation.

Hizbullah has lost some popular backing during its current standoff with the Western-backed government in Beirut – especially from Sunnis and Christians who supported the Shiite militia as an act of national solidarity.

But Yatim takes sides against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. "Who is Hizbullah? They are from the people, and are defending the country, from village to village," he says. "How can I support those [government] leaders? I lost my house. I lost my family. I support those with greater loyalty to the country, to the people."

But echoing the views of Hizbullah leaders, this family's anger is aimed at Israel and the US, which many Lebanese and Arabs blame for not stopping Israel from systematically destroying Lebanon's infrastructure. A poster of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah is plastered on the wall near the graves.

"We don't hate the American people; we love them, they are good people," says Yatim. "If Bush wants to be a hero, instead of sending smart bombs, he should send aid to the people – he would be much loved."

"The continuation of this war killed our children," says grandmother Amro, sitting on a brick beside the grave. The family of three had stayed safely with the rest of the extended family outside Beirut, for the first 24 days of the war. They went back to visit friends against the wishes of the grandparents, worried about Maya, who was pregnant.

On that day, the family was killed. Israeli aircraft had dropped warning flyers on other south Beirut suburbs they attacked, mostly Hizbullah strongholds, but none fluttered on to the mixed Shiyyah district.

"Send a Santa Claus to our kids, with toys, and children will say: 'America is beautiful,'" says Yatim. "The damage here is to the young generation, and their belief. They have seen what America has done to their country, to their people, and automatically they become opposition. How can they love America?"

Yatim argues that Israel's most important patron bears most responsibility. "Those bombs, where do they come from? You can't convince me Israel made those bombs," he says. "Rice, Bush.... Everyone knows this comes from America."

And he has more to say: "If you want to fight the terrorists, fight them in the battlefield. In this building, there were no Hizbullah. Fighting should be between soldier and soldier; we understand that."

Other Lebanese sources suggest, however, that the targeted building was struck because in fact a Hizbullah commander was there at the time.

In Israel, several thousand Hizbullah rockets killed 39 Israeli citizens, and 120 Israeli soldiers died. And in Lebanon, Hizbullah has acknowledged 250 dead fighters. The Israeli bombardment killed 1,183 people, according to a UN count, one-third of them children.

"I saw Riham," Yatim told his wife last August, when she arrived at the scene of the attack. "She looked the same, nothing changed. She's an angel."

The good memories have not dimmed for this family. "Like in your country, you are a father, your wife is a mother – you always have a joy when you see children around you," Yatim explains today.

"Every week, my daughter comes, and brings these angels to me – Riham, and the unborn baby," says Yatim, holding a small Koran, gold-embossed and bound in blue leather. "They took the joy of life from me. I wish ... that I could give my life for them. They were young.

"Our dreams in this country..." his voice trails off.

"Any human being who believes in his book, Muslim, Christian, or Jew – who believes in God – knows [these deaths] are destiny," posits Yatim, his thumb holding his place in the Koran. "That's what I learned. God gave, and God took away."

"God is great," affirms Amro.

"We learned also to get more involved in the liberation of our country," adds Yatim. "And to create bigger hatred for those who are against us."

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