Caught between warfare and politics

While Lebanon's political leaders struggle to get a reconciliation dialogue under way, 25,000 Christian civilians in this Shouf mountain town remain hostages of war.

Prevented from leaving by armed Druze militiamen whose leader, Walid Jumblatt , is bargaining for more Druze power within the Lebanese government, the Christians survive on International Red Cross rations. They are ever conscious of the 120-year-old history of Druze massacres of Christians at Deir al Qamar.

The Druzes insist their barricade is political - not aimed at civilian slaughter - and that a key reason is the 3,000 to 4,000 armed Christian militiamen holed up inside the town.

But as negotiations for the civilians' release plod slowly along and winter cold sets in among refugees huddled in public buildings, such assurances do little to quell the anxieties of the men, women, and children trapped inside.

As seen from the Druze town of Baakline across the valley, Deir al Qamar offers a charming picture of white houses with red-tiled roofs on steep, terraced slopes. As the largest Christian town in the Shouf, it normally holds about 12,000 people.

But today thousands of refugees from 52 different Christian villages and towns, along with armed Christian militiamen, wander aimlessly or crowd into abandoned houses and public buildings.

The main street is filled with children with plastic water bottles walking to and from the town fountain. It is practically the only water source.

Armed Druze militiamen check carefully to see that no local residents leave the town and that no unauthorized food or supplies are brought in by the rare visitor with a Druze permit to pass. A few individuals have managed to escape at night, climbing down into the valleys, say Christian militamen. But few dare being noticed by Druze patrols or by spotters on the opposite hills.

The refugees and native residents of Deir al Qamar have become a political football to negotiations over the future of the Shouf. Whether or not they can return home will determine the political and communal makeup of the Shouf. It will also determine whether it becomes a predominantly Druze region.

The refugees fled to Deir al Qamar in the first days of Christian-Druze fighting. The fighting errupted over control of the Shouf after Israeli forces pulled back from the area on Sept. 4.

Despite a history of intercommunal tensions dating back more than a century, Druze-Christian relations in the Shouf during the last eight years of Lebanese civil strife were mostly peaceful. While the Christians were believed to have a slight numerical edge in the Shouf, the Druzes considered it their heartland.

However, in the wake of Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis allowed outside Christian militiamen from the Maronite Lebanese Forces (also known as the Phalangists) into the area. Ostensibly, they were to protect local Christian villagers. But the Druzes charged that they aimed to assert Christian supremacy.

The Lebanese government attempted but failed to reach an agreement with the Druzes to insure the security of Shouf residents after the Israeli pullback. The government's proposal was to replace the Christian militias with Lebanese Army troops following Israel's departure. Instead of an agreement, the pullback ignited a rampage of destruction and alleged massacres by both Druze and Christian fighters which sent hapless Christian villagers fleeing to Deir al Qamar. The Christian militiamen, badly defeated, also retreated to the town, as Lebanese Army troops began shelling battles with the Druzes.

In Baakline, Farid, a black-bearded Druze militiaman and former university student, explains the significance of Deir al Qamar as he sits in his sandbagged basement headquarters under framed portraits of seven other young Druzes killed in the last eight years of fighting. ''The Lebanese Army has heavy artillery aimed on us,'' he says, ''but they know they can't use it because we have so many Druze guns facing Deir al Qamar.''

He adds, ''The Christian leaders won't let the refugees leave because they need them there to keep us from attacking their militiamen.''

In Phalange headquarters in the Maronite monastery of Mar Abda above Deir al Qamar, Christian spokesman Emile Rahme, a lawyer from east Beirut, says, ''The fate of Deir al Qamar is a card in the political negotiations.''

Just opposite Deir al Qamar in the town of Beit ed Din, in an elegant palace built by an 19th-century Lebanese sovereign, a Druze spokesman says the conditions of the refugees' release are being discussed by the security committee of the various fighting factions which was set up in the cease-fire agreement.

He says the Druzes' condition calls for the Lebanese forces to leave first, without their arms, and then the refugees. The Deir al Qamar residents would have the option of staying.

But in the Mar Abda monastery, Christian militia leaders say the civilians must leave first, and then the Christian militia with their arms. They want a Christian security presence to be left in Deir al Qamar.

In the 28 days of the siege, the Red Cross has been allowed to bring in three convoys of basics: rice, flour, sugar, beans, some tinned meat, cooking oil, and blankets.

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