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'Christians, Muslims, we're all together now because of the war . . . we're all Lebanese'
Globe and Mail
MARK MACKINNON
July 22, 2006

ZGHARTA, LEBANON — When Faiz Osman and his relatives fled their homes in south Lebanon — 18 people crammed into a bedraggled brown station wagon — they had no idea where their journey would take them. It was a desperate scramble just to escape their war-hit hometown, which had been made unlivable by constant Israeli attacks and growing food shortages.

Last night, after several days on the road, their exodus ended in this scenic Christian village in the mountains northwest of Beirut.

Like thousands of others, the Shia Muslim family was warmly welcomed by this tiny community, which threw open its schools and public buildings to the refugees driven north by ceaseless Israeli bombardment of their towns and villages. Mr. Osman and his many relatives spent last night in an elementary school, where they were given foam mattresses to sleep on, and food cooked in the kitchens of Zgharta's families.

"Christians, Muslims, we're all together now because of the war," the 38-year-old painter said. "We're all Lebanese."

In another part of the world, it would be the heartwarming tale Mr. Osman describes: Christians and Muslims uniting when their country is under attack. But in Lebanon, the truth is always more complicated than that.

While Shia refugees from the Hezbollah-controlled south were pouring into Zgharta, none went to the nearby village of Bcharré. The reason: Zgharta is dominated by supporters of Suleiman Franjieh, the head of a Christian faction that is pro-Syria and allied with Hezbollah. Bcharré is near the hometown of Samir Geagea, the head of a rival faction that is vehemently anti-Syria and blames Hezbollah for instigating the conflict with Israel.

It's happening across the country, refugees from the south are pouring into areas that are seen as under the control of pro-Syrian forces, such as Mr. Franjieh's faction and that of General Michel Aoun, another Christian leader. Meanwhile, areas where anti-Syrian political blocks hold sway — including Mr. Geagea's faction and the main Druze and Sunni groupings — have been almost entirely untouched by the conflict.

"The refugees are going to places where Hezbollah has allies, where they know they will get a warm reception," said Farid Chedid, a Beirut-based political analyst. In anti-Syrian areas, an influx of Shia refugees would be "bad chemistry," he said.

The danger, Mr. Chedid said, is that a rift that existed in Lebanon before the war will continue to deepen. Groups that are anti-Syrian blame Damascus for last year's murder of popular ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, and had been calling for Hezbollah to disarm its militia even before Israel attacked. Pro-Syrian groupings accuse politicians like Mr. Geagea of acting as agents for Israel and the United States.

While the break is purely political for now, it has the potential to get far worse. Sectarian divisions were the cause of Lebanon's devastating 1975-1990 civil war, which also featured military intervention by Syria and invasion by Israel. The multi-sided conflict left 100,000 people dead.

The new divisions were evident in the different atmospheres on the streets of Zgharta and Bcharré yesterday. In Zgharta, trucks drove between refugee centres. flying the flags of both Hezbollah and Mr. Franjieh's al-Marada party. Hatred for Israel was regularly expressed in conversation.

"It's not a war versus Shiites, it's a war versus Lebanon," said Alfred Gibaili, an affluent refugee who had put his family up in $150-a-night rooms at the Country Club in Ehden, another village seen as loyal to Mr. Franjieh. "Hezbollah is only a result. Israel is the cause of the conflict."

In Bcharré, where youths sat in Internet cafes and planned nights out in swish bars, the conflict seemed a world away. Though the town's population was swelled by residents who had abandoned their apartments in Beirut and returned to their village homes, the war was now only a sound heard on the other side of the mountains, where Israeli bombs were falling yesterday on the Shiite-dominated town of Baalbek.

There's still anger here at what is seen as Israel's disproportionate reaction: More than 330 Lebanese, almost all of them civilians, have been killed in the 10-day-old conflict, while 500,000 have been driven from their homes.

But many in Bcharré agree that the root problem is Hezbollah, which has long stood outside the Lebanese mainstream, keeping a separate militia that it has refused to fold into the country's regular army.

The Israeli offensive was sparked by a July 12 cross-border raid that saw Hezbollah kidnap two Israeli soldiers and kill eight others.

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