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A Lebanon Village Welcomes Christians Once Driven Away

Houses spruced up in an effort to woo residents who fled 1980's civil war

AS ethnic cleansing makes headlines in former Yugoslavia, Lebanon is going through the reverse process: People are being encouraged to return to their former homes.

More than 170 families were recently given keys to their freshly painted, refitted houses in this mountain village. Hand-carved stone walls were rebuilt and streets repaved to greet the former residents.

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President Elias Hrawi told returning residents they were celebrating the "wedding of national unity."

Minister of Displaced Persons, Walid Jumblatt embraced some of the Christian returnees in a gesture aimed at making them feel once again welcome among their neighbors, the Druze (an Arab ethnic group). Mr. Jumblatt, a Druze chieftain, has struggled to bring about reconciliation in the Chouf Mountain region his family has controlled for centuries.

Although it is difficult to evaluate the psychological effects of the events that led to the exodus of Christians from the Chouf in 1983, most outward signs of damage appear to have been repaired.

Everything began in 1983, after Israel started withdrawing from the Chouf, following its 1982 invasion to dislodge the Palestinian guerrillas from Lebanon.

Druze and Christian militias, which suddenly found themselves on opposing sides - the Druze militia supported Palestinian fighters and the Christian militia supported Israel - battled for control of the Chouf.

In Maaser al-Chouf, a massacre left 63 Christian villagers dead and forced the entire Christian population to flee the region. Residents accused the Druze militia of committing the crime.

In the nearby villages of Kfar Matta and Kfar Nabrakh, the Christian militia also massacred several dozen Druze civilians.

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One Christian resident of the nearby village of Deir al-Qamar says that Israel is responsible for the bloodshed. "They [the Israelis] gave us weapons and told us that the Druze were coming to kill us, they then gave weapons to the Druze and told them that we were going to kill them."

Druze and Christians have lived side by side in this mountainous region of central Lebanon for more than four centuries, but have perpetrated horrific massacres against one another in recent times.

Such was the case in 1840, when British warships intervened to help the Druze while French troops sided with the Maronite Christians in a quarrel whose origins remains obscure. A reported 10,000 civilians were barbarously killed. The scene was repeated in 1860.

Despite the reluctance of many Druze inhabitants of the region to welcome their former Christian neighbors back with open arms, Jumblatt is fighting to restore ethnic harmony. Ironically, he led the Druze militia responsible for many of the massacres during Lebanon's civil war.

"We are now seeking reconciliation for our family in the Lebanese Chouf," Jumblatt says, "and this might help to heal the wounds of war and exodus elsewhere in the country."

Many Druze who had occupied the houses of their former neighbors since 1983 were given compensation to evacuate. Jumblatt even paid for the restoration of many homes at his own expense, seeking to convince Christian leaders that their followers would again be welcome in the Chouf.

"Of course, it is difficult to rebuild some of these houses," sighs Zuheir, a former militiaman. "We said Christians would never again be welcome here and pulled many of their houses down stone by stone so that they couldn't come back."

But times have changed. The economy of the Chouf was hurt by the exodus of Christians. The majority of Lebanese who had not suffered during the 15-year civil war concluded that living in ethnically purified ghettos was not the solution to Lebanon's conflict.

"We must immunize ourselves against tribal and confessional instincts," said Charles Mjeim, spokesman for the returning Christians. "They have led us down a path of woe."

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