KFAR TEBNIT, Lebanon — Jacob Ashkar, a schoolteacher, made the long march from Beirut to southern Lebanon--albeit by Mercedes-Benz--escaping Syrian artillery, an alphabet of militia roadblocks, heat and thirst to arrive at the entrance to the part of Lebanon controlled by Israel.
Now, if he could only escape the bureaucracy.
"They want me to walk to Marjayoun to get a permit for my car. By the time I get back, the gate will close and I'll have to wait for tomorrow. What next?" he wondered aloud, looking off at the hilltop town located at least five miles away under a hot sun.
Ashkar's lament might well be the anthem of the thousands of Lebanese streaming from Beirut, fleeing the artillery duels between Christian militias on the east side of Beirut and Syria and its Muslim allies on the west.
As the death toll in the city has mounted in recent weeks, about 250,000 residents have left Beirut, U.N. officials estimate, with most heading south to stay with relatives and friends.
More than 15,000 have entered the Israeli-controlled security zone along Israel's border, a somewhat ironical influx: Many had fled this area during Israel's periodic invasions and bombings of Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s that were designed to uproot the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Belongings in Hand
In any event, the refugees were lining up this week at a crossing near the village of Kfar Tebnin, six miles north of the Israeli border near Metulla, to get back in--belongings and children in hand.
The crossing point sits atop a hill sprinkled with colorful wildflowers and scars of Lebanon's ongoing conflict: two houses flattened by the Israeli army and the crater of an Arab car bomb that went off last year and killed three Israeli soldiers.
Israel controls the strip in southern Lebanon with the aid of the South Lebanese Army, a force of 2,500 troops that Israel pays, equips and trains. Both the Lebanese militia and the Israeli army itself patrol the region to intercept Palestinian infiltrators trying to cross into Israel on terrorist or military raids. As a further deterrent, swaths of hillside are sown with mines in order to narrow access routes.
The arrival of thousands of refugees from the north is a source of worry to the Israelis because guerrillas might come with them. When the Lebanese cross the border into the security zone, they are searched and interrogated briefly.
"Anyone could come down from Beirut, and we have to be extra cautious," said the Israeli soldier who accompanied reporters on a visit to Kfar Tebnin. He motioned to one journalist who had ventured to the other side of the metal barrier separating Israeli-controlled Lebanon from the rest of the country. "Come back, come back! Someone could kidnap you and you'll never be heard from again," he warned.
The refugees had stories to tell, a variation on the theme of endless strife and displacement in Lebanon.
An elderly French-language interpreter who lived in a third-floor apartment on Hamra Street, the main shopping area of West Beirut, explained his flight by the law of averages: "Last week, during a bombardment, a shell hit the floor above us. On Sunday, a shell hit the floor below. I decided not to wait for the next one."
Denhli, a soldier from the Lebanese army, whose mission has traditionally been to avoid confronting any of the factions fighting in Lebanon, showed up at the crossing in uniform: "I'm on leave, and my family left Beirut last week, so I have come to join them. We in the Lebanese army are not in favor of the Syrians. The only trouble I had leaving Beirut was when a Syrian soldier saw me at a checkpoint. I told him I was going to see my mother and he let me pass."
Hamed Foll, a dentist who was trapped in Beirut on a trip to buy equipment, was of two minds about living in a zone run by Israel: "I do not like foreigners running my country. On the other hand, this is the most peaceful place in Lebanon. Also, I am the only dentist for 15 villages."
A hairdresser, speaking in French, tripped up to the crossing in high heels and expressed a common befuddlement: "What's happening in Beirut? Everything. We had to live in the basement of our apartment for two weeks. Without electricity, without water. Nothing. We don't even know who is shooting at us most of the time. No, all of the time, we don't know."
Ashkar, who was haggling with the Israelis over his Mercedes, was the lone Christian interviewed. He said he left East Beirut when a wall in his house collapsed after a night of shelling.