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Peace of Mind Still Elusive in Southern Lebanon Towns

THE WORLD

May 22, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the backing of Syria and Iran, Hezbollah waged a guerrilla war that eventually forced Israel to withdraw. Although there were concerns at the time of the retreat that Hezbollah would attack Christian villages, the overall mood was joyous, and the attacks never materialized. "The whole withdrawal went so smoothly," said the U.N.'s Goksel. "There was no bloodshed. It was anticlimactic. These villages have become just like any other Lebanese village."

Local people and government leaders expected the international community to come up with redevelopment aid for the occupation zone, in which 2,700 homes were destroyed, 12,047 were seriously damaged and 9,730 were partially damaged, according to a recent study commissioned by the Netherlands.

Kuwait is now rebuilding three villages from the ground up, and the government says it has received limited aid from Arab countries. But donations have fallen far short of the rosy expectations of a year ago.

And Lebanon itself is so burdened with debt that it has no money of its own to invest in the south.

"If you look technically, the economic situation of people of the south was better off [under Israeli occupation] than now," said Mohammed Mokalled, coordinator of the U.N. Development Program in the south, one of the few agencies bringing money and projects to the region.

Even where money is available, no local government officials are in place to help administer programs. The Israeli-appointed administrators have either fled or gone to prison. There have not been elections in the south in 35 years, nor are there plans to have any. The only established group is Hezbollah, torn between loyalty to Lebanon and to its benefactors, Syria and Iran.

"It's not going as well as we want," said Goksel, who has been in the region since 1979. "I hate to say this, but the area became too quiet and calm too fast" and is no longer a priority for the international community.

Still, the pending return of those sent to prison has sparked the most immediate concern. When Israeli forces withdrew, the most notorious collaborators fled Lebanon. Courts have sentenced 35 former South Lebanon Army, or SLA, members to death in absentia.

But hundreds of others simply turned themselves in to the authorities. After a national debate over how to treat those who worked for the occupiers, most of the 1,800 who were convicted received prison terms of six months to a year. The relatively light punishment has caused resentment among those who held out for more than two decades and refused to take money from the occupying forces.

Khattar Azmat, 55, was paid $450 a month to cook for the SLA. "There was no work. What were we supposed to do?" he said recently as he sat with his wife and four children in a cramped two-room apartment in Marjayoun. "You either worked for the SLA or went to work in Israel."

Azmat was found guilty of collaboration and spent several months in prison.

Recently, he stepped onto his balcony to watch as nervous Lebanese soldiers and intelligence agents fanned out across the town square, searching cars and questioning pedestrians. A day earlier, the square had been littered with leaflets threatening collaborators and their families with violence if they didn't leave.

The leaflets said, in part: "All collaborators who come out of [prison] should not return to their villages. . . . In case they return, the doors of hell will open in their faces."

Azmat carried the paper folded and tucked in his back pocket. "Of course I am scared," he said.

*

Slackman was recently on assignment in Lebanon.

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