An American woman's devotion to war-torn Lebanon

What is a cultured woman who sounds like a character from the Tara plantation in ''Gone with the Wind'' doing in a war zone like the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon?

Carrie Nelle Moye Thompson of Atlanta has seen Syrian missiles nestled among the cabbage patches of that valley, learned to distinguish the sound of a car bomb exploding in the street from that of Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier, started studying Arabic, and decided that her American compatriots don't know much about the Middle East.

Ms. Thompson is back in the United States on a short visit, just long enough to attend to some family affairs. But her heart is still in Lebanon. Through her work with refugees, she would like to show displaced Lebanese and Palestinians that there are Americans who care deeply about their plight. What has struck her most is the resilience of many of the people who have survived the fighting. Among them were:

* A Lebanese man who had lost his wife and children - and both of his legs - but who immediately went about trying to build a new life in a Syrian refugee camp by repairing, among other things, pots and pans.

* A Palestinian physician in his 70s who feared he might be the target of a vendetta and who was looking for yet another country to flee to for a new start.

* A baby burned by phosphorous who will survive and perhaps even prosper some day.

* Two boys in a refugee camp in Damascus who shared one pair of shoes. One wore the right one and the other the left.

Like anyone who comes back from a war zone to the comparative safety of the United States, Ms. Thompson is struck by the indifference of some of her compatriots to the suffering that has occurred in the Lebanon war. People have already started forgetting the bombing of Beirut, she fears, and she would like to ensure that they not forget.

A former history teacher in the Atlanta public schools, Ms. Thompson was born on an 800-acre farm near Barnesville, Ga.

''It was neither Tara nor Tobacco Road,'' she says.

Ms. Thompson started getting her education on the Middle East through an interest in UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. She was the first regional director for the US Committee for UNICEF. That led to a fact-finding trip to the Mideast. She met a Palestinian woman who had been expelled in 1948 from her home village, and that led to some soul-searching. For many years, the only side of the Arab-Israeli conflict which she had known was the Israeli one. Now she was hearing another side.

Ms. Thompson went into the business of selling land in Georgia and Alabama to Lebanese and others who were seeking secure investments outside the war zone. In early June, she was at her new office in Beirut - possibly the only American business woman there at the time - when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon began. Just opposite her apartment in one of the nicest sections of west Beirut, an antiaircraft crew fired vainly at Israeli fighter-bombers. When the bombs got close, Ms. Thompson left Beirut like many a refugee and, because of a desire to help with the refugee problem, ended up in the Bekaa Valley.

People would ask her: ''Why doesn't Reagan cut off the money that's paying for the bombs that are dropping?''

Meanwhile, Ms. Thompson says she believes that while it was slow in coming and, in her view, ought to say more about the need for a Palestinian homeland, President Reagan's plan for peace in the Middle East is ''a very positive step forward.''

The tall and articulate Ms. Thompson thinks that her Deep South accent, which she describes as ''country,'' has hindered her in her attempt to tell her story to busy journalists in Washington. But she is determined to tell it to anyone who will listen. Then, like so many people who become deeply involved in the Mideast and can't shake it off, she will return to Lebanon.

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