Lebanon : Land of bitterness and slaughter
A VIVID picture of the slaughter and bitterness in Lebanon during the recent war is given here by Fr RONALD ROBERTS, who runs a home for deaf Christian and Muslim boys in the mountains of Lebanon.
IT STARTED on a Sunday. A new church was being inaugurated (Mai-onite). The crowds were enormous when a bus-load of Palestine, armed men drove up. According to a treaty they had signed with the Lebanese Government they were acting illegally in leaving their .camp with arms.
One of the men shot and killed the bodyguard of the leader of the Phalangists, the main Catholic political party. The match had been put to the gun-powder barrel.
The country was soon deeply divided, the Palestinians rallying to arms the Communists, mainly, of Christian (nonCatholic, Greek Orthodox) origin, and a percentage of the Druze. Libyans and other leftist Arab countries sent contingents.
As soon as war broke out the Muslim children (we were 25 Christian and 25 Muslim pupils) were taken home by their parents, most of them in. tears. A number of our Christian children could not go home as their homes were in war zones, and some of them have not seen their parents even now two years later, even though the war is finished.
The Ambassador and the Consul pleaded with me to Leave Lebanon. Most foreigners and thousands of Christian Lebanese fled the country. But how could I go and leave my kids?
The war came nearer and nearer to our mountain school. I had to go out and buy food. Prices soared. One day I was driving back up from the coaster town below us where I had been buying food.
The road climbed past the ;houses at the bottom, and we reached a part where there were open spaces covered in bushes. Four armed men
jumped out from behind the bushes, and one stuck his machine gun against my chest and said: "We want all your petrol and all your money."
I replied: "You won't get a drop of my petrol or a piastre of my money while I am alive. Go ahead and shoot." The three who were with him couldn't believe their ears.
But the hard-faced man holding the gun was not a bit impressed. I asked him: "Why are you hesitating? Would you like me to step down on to the road to make it easier for you? Then you won't touch this poor chap next to me, he is deaf. poor chap three never expected anything like this, and we were on a main road. They grabbed the man with the gun by his shoulders and ran him backwards as fast as they could. A shot rang out, but I think it was accidental.
Our school is on the slope of a mountain going down into a narrow valley. On the opposite slopes arc two or three small towns, One of these was supposed to have more than its fair share of 'leftists' and they received orders to shell our side at night.
The first night people on this side had never experienced shelling and lit up their outside lights and came out on their balconies. I rushed upstairs to the dormitories and got all the kids down to cellars in one of the other houses.
1 then took one of the older boys, got out the car and rushed round our two villages and part of the small town above us telling everyone to put out all their lights. My six years in the Army had got me used to the whistle of oncoming shells. They were definitely meant for us, and all I could wonder was whether they would hit upstairs where the kids slept or downstairs (my room).
I prayed, and knew it would be any moment now. And sure enough there was a heavy, dull
thud — but no explosion. Two shells are still in the jungle in front of my bedroom. I have asked Christian armed groups to come and look for them, but no one has come. Fortunately only foxes go for walks in that jungle.
Lebanon is and was a strange land, beautiful in so many ways, its mountains and coast, its rosary of antique ruins and buildings going back through the ages. Its snow-covered mountains draw hundreds of locals and tourists. It's a strange mixture of the old and the ultramodern, but above all with an incredible mixture of peoplei and faiths and customs.
Formerly roughly half Christian and half Muslim, even these were and are divided with no brotherly love uniting them despite efforts from a handful of sincere souls.
The Catholics, who claim to have been — and some claim they are still — the largest religious group, arc divided into six or seven sub-groups, each with its own Patriarch, each with its own way of saying Mass ... the Maronites, the Greek Catholics, the Syrian Catholics, the Armenian Catholics, the Chaldean Catholics, a few Copt Catholics, and a handful of Latin Catholics all proclaiming their allegiance to the Pope.
Next you have the probably largest group of all the Muslims, these too divided into the Sunnites (the most fanatical of all the religious groups) with the Chiites (less aggressive), and the Druzes.
In the shanty towns around the bigger towns. you have the Kurds and Arabs from all over the Arab world, and of course the thousands of Palestinians in their refugee camps.
There was no love lost between any of these groups, and in many cases sheer hatred was more than evident. It was something of a miracle that they had lived together so long without a major clash.
Then it came, and became one of the most appalling civil wars the world has ever known. I would never have believed it possible for men of any sort, especially those who claimed to be Christian, to have gone to
the lengths of murderous savagery that they did. Kidnapping by both sides was constant, and if you were not on the side of kidnappers you were invariably tortured in the most appalling ways --your ears cut oft and your tongue torn out as well as your eyes.
On the main coast road, just near a fashionable casino, the road crosses two narrow rocky gulleys very low down, One day I saw about 15 mutilated bodies thrown over the bridges. Women were not spared.
There were bodies, often headless, all around us, but I cannot tell all in so short an account because there are two very special proofs of Almighty God's protection I want to tell you about.
One of our Muslim students, aged 17, had only been with us at school five years but had made amazing progress. He is deaf, but has learnt to speak. He left when the war began and started work.
One day he left as usual at 4 o'clock with another I 7-yearold boy who could hear. They hadn't got far before they were seized by a group of supposed Christians. They were dragged off into a basement where they were beaten and tied up.
Revolvers were put to their foreheads, and a butcher's knife run across their throat accompanied by great laughter from their torturers. My boy, Samir, told me he was not one bit afraid. lie said he knew God would see them through. His companion, also a Muslim, was
Samir said to him: "Don't cry, don't be afraid. Abouna (Fr Roberts) has told us that Allah sees everything. He knows we are here. He loves the deaf. It was here in Lebanon that His Son Jesus gave speech and hearing back to the deaf man in the district between Tyre and Sidon.
"I promise you in the name of Allah that He will get us out of here in the morning safe and sound,"
His torturers mocked him. Their leader was dressed like a Ku Klux Klan man, all in black with two holes for his eyes. The torturers said: "Oh don't be afraid, we are not going to kill you tonight but tomorrow morning at 5 o'clock. We will cut your ears off first then your noses and then cut your throats."
Samir is very intelligent. Every time one of the thugs came near him he asked quite innocently: "Where are you from?" They, thinking he would be dead in a few hours, told him. This gave us a very good idea who was concerned. Samir and his friend were tied up, lying on the cold cement. The torturers slept until 5 o'clock and then, jeering at the two youths, started to :sharpen their butchers' knives. Samir realised they were going to be murdered.
He told me he tried to free his right hand to make the sign of the Cross, found he couldn't, so he said: "I did the next best thing and made it with my head." Then out aloud he started to recite the "Our Father."
His torturers nearly dropped their knives, and one came across and struck him in the face, saying: "You swine of a Moslim. Who gave you permission to pray as a Christian?"
Samir took no notice and finished the "Our Father" and started the "Hail Mary." He reached the "Amen". At that moment he said he felt as if someone was drawing a veil over him which as it covered him removed every trace of fear.
He said to himself they can go ahead, I am not afraid: and at that very moment there was the noise of men rushing down the stairs.
To everyone's amazement., the excellent Christian leader of the Phalangists came rushing in with armed partisans. He ordered all the torturers to put up their hands. He gave them hell. What right had they to call themselves Christians?
Someone had seen the kidnapping the night before but had not. seen where they were taken to. Cheik Pierre Gemayel had been searching everywhere and found them at the moment that Samir finished his "Hail Mary". He ordered them to be set free and, not knowing Samir was deaf, he asked him his name. Samir replied very clearly: "I am Samir Rifai. I am completely deaf but I can read lips and can speak a little as I am at Fr Roberts' School."
Cheik Pierre's face lit up and said: "How is Father? Give him my warmest greetings and congratulations. You speak so clearly." The torturers tried twice to get Samir out of his house, which was the only Muslim house in that area. His mother ran out of the back door and all the, Christians came running over and drove the thugs away. The thugs were furious and evidently connected me with Samir's escape, so three nights running they came and fired outside my bedroom.
The first grenade they fired missed by about a foot, and I followed its flight along the row of windows near the ceiling. It fell into the garden and exploded.
The next night it was a powerful army rifle, but the bullet only scratched the wall. I bought a very noisy toy revolver. It sounded like the real thing, so as soon as the grenade exploded I very quietly opened my side window and fired. I think it scared them because the next night when they came with a revolver they kept a safe distance and hid behind a tree.
Now for our second miracle. Tony Dib is only 10 and lives in a Christian area with a Palestine camp not too far away. He, his father, mother, six brothers and sisters and two women neighbours were chatting peacefully in their front room when they heard awful screams.
They rushed to the windows and to their horror they saw Palestinians dragging out their neighbours from their houses and cutting off their heads. Tony's father said: "My God, we're next."
Quickly, everybody went up to the roof and their father told them to press themselves against the tiles and not make a sound. They heard the Palestinians breaking down the door, and tramping all over the house.
Tony found a spy-hole and kept them all informed. He told them that the Palesinians were carrying off all they could lay their hands on, then, with signs, asked his father if he had hidden a• large sum of money anywhere.
The father nodded. It was a considerable sum, especially for a not too well-off family. Tony told him they had found it and were dancing with it.
The Palestinians evidently thought the house was empty, so they went into every room. Soon the whole house was blazing. The flames and smoke started to fill the roof space.
Their father said: "We have escaped having our heads cut off only to be burnt 'to death. Pray, pray, everybody. Tony, pray." They all prayed as never before. Unknown to them at the back of the house there was a man hiding. He loved Tony's family and had been waiting to hear their screams.
There were none, and he had seen the Palestinians going oft into the distance. What could have happened to the famiiva He knew they were all in the house. Flames and smoke were pouring out, and soon the house would be gutted. Then he said a sort of voice had said to him: "The roor.
He ran for a ladder, put it against the wall, climbed to the roof and started pulling off the tiles. He was nearly choked by the smoke and flames, but as soon as the hole was hig enough the whole family and two neighbours climbed out.
Tony's father phoned me the same hour. I told him to bring Tony back to school at once, but he said "I can't. Tony. has only what he is wearing." They now had no house, no clothes, no food and no money. He hadn't th&money for a taxi to bring Tony. I told him I would see to that, but that he must not leave Tony in these awful surroundings. They arrived about an hour later.
There is so much more to tell, but no time. There has been no mail service for two years, but somehow some letters have got through and it has been a series of miracles how the Catholic Near East Welfare Association has. got our money through to us every three months.
Pray, pray, pray for Lebanon, Beg Our Lord to raise up more and more real Christians who know and practise the Gospel as Our Lord would have us do.
God bless you all and please pray for me and that I find a first-class successor, My 68 years are beginning to weigh a little heavily, but I do hope this work will go on, and even grow. It has so obviously been blessed by God, and despite the thousands of years the Catholics have been established in Lebanon this is the only really Catholic school for the deaf.