Lebanon's refugees regroup. Relief worker finds glimpses of hope amid the rubble

During the past 31/2 years, Anne Nixon has crisscrossed the embattled country of Lebanon. In Beirut and villages to the south she saw family and community life shredded by conflict and displacement. She also saw pockets of relative calm, particularly in the northern mountains, where life went on nearly as normal. It's all part of the patchwork of ``discrepancies'' that is Lebanon, she says. Ms. Nixon worked there as a representative of the American Friends Service Committee attached to the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). Her stint began in 1982, just before the Israelis began their push toward Beirut, and ended this September.

During her stay, she witnessed how the traditional patterns of life known to these families were being scrambled by the perpetual conflict.

You have to understand, Nixon explains, how ``very important'' the close-knit, extended family is in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. When people become refugees, they are suddenly thrown together in camps with strangers from other parts of the country -- men and women with different customs and beliefs. It can be difficult for them to work together on even such basic tasks as garbage disposal.

``Sadly,'' she adds, the Lebanese have become ``experts at dealing with these problems.'' They've had an abundance of experience. Organizers from local relief agencies ``immediately designate people to be in charge of garbage, medical help, and other things,'' she explains.

University students working with those agencies ``had families on computers,'' even during the invasion and its aftermath. With the names of family members and heads of families on file, they were often able to track the movement of these people, Nixon says.

Lebanon's women face radically changed circumstances because of the fighting, she observes. Thousands of men, traditionally the leaders and providers for families, are either dead or unable to return home.

So ``the whole burden was upon the women,'' says Nixon. ``They're not just continuing their lives, but trying to pull them back together again.''

Women are the ones who have to pack the family's belongings as a battle begins, and they're also the first to return to a village to start the rebuilding, she says.

Children, of course, are also buffeted by Lebanon's turmoil. There are some relatively stable places, particularly in the north, where schools still operate normally, says Nixon, but in other places children haven't been to school in years.

She mentions the wrenching problem of young people who've never known anything but war -- gun-toting boys of 15 whose only education has been in killing. Some people are trying to provide schooling for those youths, she says, but it's a frustrating task given recurrent fighting. To make matters worse, many of the boys have become drug abusers, she adds.

Youngsters, even those in relatively harmonious surroundings, can begin to think of killing as the norm. She recalls a chat she had with a Lebanese clergyman. He mentioned funeral arrangements for an elderly woman who had just passed on. His little daughter, overhearing, immediately asked, ``Who killed her?'' It apparently never occurred to the child, says Nixon, that the woman might have died of natural causes.

Nixon had hoped to be involved in more development projects in the country, using her expertise in agriculture. But relief work, helping Lebanon's constant flow of refugees, overwhelmed all else.

Soon after arrival, she quickly became immersed in such projects as coordinating a team of 90 civil defense workers assigned to garbage collection in the fractured neighborhoods of Beirut. At other times, she would travel -- with relative ease as a foreigner unconnected to any of the warring factions, she says -- into the countryside. There she supervised the clearing of irrigation systems and reservoirs and helped displaced families get basic supplies -- baby food, heaters, blankets, mattresses.

Through her work with the victims of war she sometimes caught glimpses of hope, often in the valor of individuals. ``A situation like this can bring out the very best in people,'' she affirms.

As an example, she cites her friend Gabriel Habib, general secretary of the MECC. Mr. Habib, who is Greek Orthodox, had witnessed his father being shot down in the street by militiamen. ``Yet he developed, and is the guiding force behind, a MECC program to assist all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion,'' Nixon points out. He also sponsors an Islamic-Christian dialogue that's seeking ways those groups can live side by side in peace. ``He's still hopeful of a unified Lebanon,'' she says.

Another example: Iman Khalife, a young Shiite Muslim woman, tried to organize a peace march from west Beirut to the ``green line'' that divides the city's warring factions. There, explains Nixon, the west Beirut delegation was to meet with people from east Beirut. The marchers were shelled by the militias before they could reach their goal and warned not to try it again. But Iman Khalife continues to work for peace.

In the country's villages Nixon saw other evidence of the indomitability of the human spirit: people returning to nearly ``flattened'' communities, sinking their savings into rebuilding -- perhaps buying a tractor for the village. She recalls standing in a field, chatting with a group of villagers about what crops to plant, even as Israeli armor rumbled by on a nearby road.

The country's jarring ``discrepancies'' are everywhere, she says again. You can be enjoying a delicious meal in a restaurant in one part of Beirut while shells fall in another part.

Since returning here, Nixon has felt a ``renewed appreciation'' for the United States Constitution, civil rights, and social order. She has also encountered some disturbingly simplistic attitudes about what's going on in Lebanon. ``There are so many layers to the conflict,'' she says. ``I try to present this complexity, not as an answer or full explanation, but as a context that could lead to understanding.''

It's never as simple as the Christians against the Muslims, she adds. You have to ask, ``Which Christians? Which Muslims?''

Nixon says she'd like to return to Lebanon at some point but admits to being ``very tired'' -- words which acquire a whole new dimension in Lebanon, she notes. ``I didn't like to leave a situation like that,'' she says. ``I would rather leave when things are better.''

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