Lebanese ask if civil war is really over

This month's attack on a Christian family by Muslim militants is

John Yazbek's village was a place of quiet accommodation between Christians and Muslims, even during most of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

On Jan. 3, Muslim militants stormed into the house of Mr. Yazbek, a Christian soldier in the Lebanese Army. His wife and mother-in-law were killed in the clash. It was one of several recent incidents that left Yazbek - and many other Lebanese - pondering whether the nation has completely reconciled after a sectarian civil war that ended 10 years ago.

"People are shocked and afraid," Yazbek says. "The Muslims here are also afraid, and reject these things."

Local newspapers blamed the incident on a shadowy group of 200 militants whose leaders fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and may have links with terrorist Osama bin Laden. That reported connection, and the sectarian nature of the violence, sent shockwaves throughout the country.

The gunfight at Yazbek's house followed a series of church bombings late last year. Earlier this month, a nun was found strangled. Locals tell of gruesome killings. Such reports have fed the tension, especially in the capital, Beirut.

People in Kfar Houna laugh when they hear that "their" gunfight has spawned such anxiety in Beirut. For them, relations were good between local Muslims and Christians even during the war, so the violence doesn't resonate the way it does with residents of Beirut, who lived through the worst of the 15-year conflict.

"The Lebanese want to forget everything about the war. It is no longer in the official memory. We never discuss it," says Farid al-Khazen, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut.

The clashes "have brought all these things back," he says. "There has been nothing like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission here. This does not mean that every time we have a problem, we will have a war. But Lebanon is a divided society, and it's a precarious situation."

Taken together, the recent violence has sparked some soul-searching in Lebanon - and anxious recognition that the sectarian roots of the civil war remain barely under the surface.

Evidence of cloaking even the memory of the war are everywhere. The former Green Line that divided Christian East and Muslim West Beirut - a swath of buildings shelled to rubble that once served as a stark reminder of the dangers of sectarian thinking - has been razed to the ground and replaced with a huge, polished new business district. Scenes from a prize-winning dark comedy about the war, called "A Civilized People," was heavily censored by the government.

The sense of insecurity, especially among Christians who have seen their share of political power decline in recent years, has caused prices of pistols sold by shady gun merchants in Beirut to double since the clashes in the north, Lebanese sources say.

"This may remind us of the war, but today in Lebanon we have a national non-confessional army," says Michel Bitar, the village mayor. "It's a new point - people aren't Orthodox, Muslim, Druze, Maronite or anything else. We hope it continues like that."

The Sunni Muslim militants who attacked Yazbek's house had been training secretly in remote camps in the mountains, and had chased away local hunters who stumbled across them.

They ambushed a Lebanese Army patrol on New Year's Eve and then fled, passing down through the hills past Kfar Houna, traveling by foot toward Palestinian refugee camps on the coast. But the Lebanese Army caught up with them, and 30 militants turned Yazbek's house into their last redoubt.

"They were prepared for war," says Yazbek, of the up-to-date arsenal the militants carried. Hours later, Lebanese Army tanks battered two houses. Heavy 155mm Howitzers were brought in to finish the job.

Today Yazbek's house is a twisted pile of concrete. Every branch of a lone tree is a tangle of splintered wood from the ferocity of the gunfight between militants and the Lebanese Army. When the battle was over, the army carried away two truckloads of weaponry.

Arabic newspapers and other sources report that Abu Aisha, the leader of the group who was killed, was a charismatic veteran of jihad (holy war) in Afghanistan and Bosnia. He carried an American passport and had a "good relationship" with Mr. Bin Laden, the Saudi-born fugitive whom the US blames for bombing two US Embassies in East Africa in August 1998.

He attracted young and poor Lebanese recruits from Tripoli, with promises of avenging injustices done to Muslims in Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia, Algeria and elsewhere. When more than 150 young Muslims were rounded up and questioned by Lebanese authorities after the church bombings in Tripoli and Beirut, the worst "enemy" became the Lebanese state.

"Young people suffered government abuse and ran away to [those camps]," says Salem al-Shahal, a sheikh in Tripoli. Could the violence presage future sectarian strife?

"This is a fantasy," says Sheikh al-Shahal. "We don't know these people, what they believe or how they think. They're outlaws, he says."

"If people want to fight, they can go to the south" where Lebanese guerrillas fight Israeli troops, echoes the Rev. Georges Shaghouri, the Orthodox priest in Kfar Houna. All faiths "live together" here and celebrate each others' holy days, he says.

During the civil war, his father - the village priest before him - preached unity, and helped convince Muslims under threat from advancing Christian militiamen not to leave. "He proved we can be safe together," Fr. Shaghouri says, "so that is what I am teaching."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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