Lebanese fighters happy to be home

After fleeing to Israel, many homesick militiamen returned to Lebanon this month despite fears.

The first thing Julia Qassis did when she returned home last week to the Christian border village of Dibil after an absence of 19 months was to light a candle at a shrine dedicated to the Madonna opposite her house.

"She was with us when we went to Israel and She was with us when we came back," the mother of three says.

Mrs. Qassis was among an estimated 6,000 Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) militiamen and their families who fled to Israel in May 2000 when the Jewish state's 22-year occupation of the area collapsed overnight.

Almost three-quarters of Dibil's population streamed across the border four miles south of the hillside village. The residents of the area, especially the Christian Maronites, feared retribution at the hands of triumphant Shia Muslim Hizbullah fighters, who were swarming into the areas vacated by Israeli forces and their SLA allies.

Following the exodus, Dibil turned into a virtual ghost town. The old stone houses lay empty and few people could be seen along the narrow streets.

But the feared sectarian bloodbath never happened. Instead, south Lebanon has witnessed its longest period of quiet in more than 30 years. The calm, coupled with homesickness and financial inducements from the Israeli government, has helped persuade hundreds of people in the past month to return to Lebanon. So far, 2,344 people have returned since May 2000 and more are crossing into Lebanon every day.

For many of the ex-militiamen, coming home means standing trial before a military tribunal in Beirut and a possible prison sentence of several months to a few years for collaborating with Israel.

Mrs. Qassis's husband served five years in the SLA. But she says that the prospect of a possible jail sentence was not enough to dissuade the family from returning to Lebanon.

"I missed Lebanon very much," she says. "All my family is here. They came to greet us when we arrived in Dibil. It was very emotional."

And it was also a far cry from the night of May 23, 2000, when the terrified family drove to the border, without even packing a suitcase.

"We just locked the doors and left for Israel," she recalls. "The border crossing was a terrible sight. People were like cattle, piled on top of each other, trying to get across. We had no idea what would happen to us."

The Qassis family was taken to a temporary camp in Tiberias in northern Israel before moving into a kibbutz allotted to about 30 SLA families near Nahariyeh on the coast. The Israelis provided the families with everything they needed and gave each household $200 a month spending money.

But the benign treatment they received in Israel could not compensate for the daily drudgery of their existence.

"Everyday was the same. I would wake up, sit, and go back to bed," Mrs. Qassis says. "I didn't know the country and there was nothing to do. I was very unhappy in Israel and took antidepressant pills."

It was especially hard for her three children. Pierre, 16, attended a school for Lebanese refugees and was taught by Lebanese teachers who had also fled.

There was little interaction with local Israelis. But Pierre said that he had made some "temporary" Israeli friends.

Politics were not discussed, Pierre adds. "We talked about girls and music."

While the Israeli public generally treated them with indifference, the Israeli Arabs were openly hostile to the SLA refugees.

Zou Zou Assaf, a former SLA militia-man from the Christian border village of Rmeish, recalled attending a mass in Tar Shiha, a Maronite village in Western Galilee. "The local people didn't want us there," he says. "They smashed the windows of our cars."

Mr. Assaf was able to earn extra money from apple picking and construction work. But he missed his wife and two children, whom he had been forced to leave behind in Lebanon.

"They were too young to take with me," he says.

The yearning to go home was overwhelming for many of the families. A delegation of Dibil residents met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and offered to return to Lebanon if the Israeli government was willing to provide a reasonable cash bonus on top of the severance pay granted all ex-militiamen.

Mrs. Qassis says her husband was paid $26,000 which included his indemnity, the bonus, and an additional $2,000 per child. Assaf received a package of $41,000: $30,000 end-of-service pay and an $11,000 bonus.

Not everybody is happy, however. Najib Attieh is the only militiaman who remained behind in Dibil, unwilling to abandon his wife and seven children. He was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $260 for his 14 years in the SLA. Although he received $24,000 compensation from the Israeli government, he regrets having remained in Lebanon.

"If I had run away to Israel, I would have received much more," he said.

Barred for three years from employment, Mr. Attieh is seeking to supplement his income from tobacco farming by providing a taxi service for families to visit relatives in jail outside Beirut.

"Nobody will employ me because I am classified as a traitor," he says. "The Israeli government should give us more money through the United Nations. We spilled our blood for them."

But most of the returnees are simply glad to be home. "It's worth coming back and going to prison for a while than staying in Israel away from my family," Assaf says.

It is a sentiment shared by Mrs. Qassis: "From now on, no matter what happens, we stay in our own country."

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