The World

Kill a Muslim for Christ/Kill a Christian for Allah

PETER NIESEWAND September 6 1976
The World

Kill a Muslim for Christ/Kill a Christian for Allah

PETER NIESEWAND September 6 1976

Kill a Muslim for Christ/Kill a Christian for Allah

The World

Up in the mountains outside Beirut, a bearded Australian mercenary named Blue turns his AK-47 rifle on a group of children, the youngest aged 10, and suddenly opens fire around their feet. “Move, you little mothers,” he screams. The children scramble, terrified, under a barbed wire obstacle course. When the AK-47 was empty, Blue drew his pistol and blazed away over their heads. In less than two weeks the children’s training program would be over and they would be counted as “fighters” with the right-wing Christian forces in Lebanon’s brutish, 16-month civil war. They would know the rudiments of street fighting once they left their mountain training camp, know how to handle three or four different weapons, how to explode dynamite and hand grenades, but not much more. “Christ,” said Blue, “my own basic training was nine months. What can I teach these poor bastards in two weeks. All I can do is hope they learn enough to stay alive until they get experience.” But in a war that has already left 50,000 dead, staying alive isn’t easy for anyone, least of all the children, whose physical and psychic destruction has been appallingly routine.

In Christian-held East Beirut, there is an

orphanage that used to be a remand home for juvenile delinquents. When the war exploded, the prisons were thrown open and the young men left to find guns. The inmates now are Muslim children, many of them so stunned by the destruction of their families they can no longer speak. They wait and watch. The priests who care for them have their own daily battles—against the Christians in the district who hate the kids so much they try to deprive them of water. Across the “Green Line” in Muslim-held West Beirut, three boys, between the ages of 10 and 13, arrived in a market area one morning armed with Kalashnikov rifles. For a few hours they fired at random on shoppers and stall vendors, causing panic. Nobody could stop them until some adult leftist gunmen arrived and imposed a solution. They shot the boys. In this many-sided war, whom you kill or how you do it rarely seems important to the fighters.

The seeds of war were sown early in 1975 when Lebanon’s right-wing Christian political parties began a campaign to reassert national sovereignty, which they feared was being usurped by the sprawling, wellarmed Palestinian guerrilla movement. Initially, the movement was developed by

Arabs who exiled themselves after their former homelands were incorporated into the new state of Israel in 1948, and by last year it enjoyed virtual autonomy within Lebanon. The Christians envisioned a fast, decisive battle where the armored strength and air power of government forces would quickly crush the guerrillas. But the Palestinians deflected the original attacks, finding allies among Lebanon’s Muslim and leftist organizations. Last January, well armed by Syria and other Arab countries, the Palestinians and their leftist allies took the offensive. The Lebanese army cracked and the government was reduced to chaos. In the months that followed, however, Syria became alarmed at the rapidly mounting strength of the Palestinians just beyond its border in Lebanon. Finally, the Syrians invaded, eventually linked up with Christian forces and began planning a concerted strike on the shrinking leftist-held areas to destroy the last vestiges of Palestinian power in the country.

But as Lebanon waits nervously for the blow to be struck, the wanton murders continue and the mounds of grotesque, twisted bodies grow. On the highway to the Casino du Liban on the outskirts of the port of Juniya there is a bridge that is a fa-

vorite dumping point for enemy corpses. Cars pull up there and bodies are dragged from the trunks, doused in gasoline and set ablaze as they begin their 150-foot plunge to the rocks below where they rot. The burial pits are never empty. Apart from a few men kept for propaganda purposes, no prisoners are taken in this war. Some aren’t yet dead when they go over the edge of the burial holes. After the fall of the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Tel Zaatar, a group of journalists saw a man being dragged from a car. He was already staggering. Gunmen forced him to scramble down the side of a ravine toward a pile of cramped, charred corpses. When he was halfway there, they opened fire on him. Others die when they are tied behind cars and dragged through the streets. It’s also fairly common on both sides to drag corpses behind cars, dead arms flailing so that passersby and the children can jeer. The capacity for inhumanity seems infinite. Death is constantly present. Charred corpses rot by the roadside where they were killed as they fled. You smell them, choking as you drive by. The smell is even evident along the seafront in Beirut, once the elegant, luxurious playground of the Middle East.

But anyone searching for answers to the tragedy in the character of the Lebanese seems destined to be frustrated. On the surface, at least, people on both sides, including their leaders, are extremely pleasant individuals. Dany Chamoun, one of the right-wing Christian leaders, said in a conversation that the Palestinians would never agree to lay down their arms, so they would have to be killed or forced out of Lebanon. I asked him where they could go. Dany Chamoun looked sleepy. “How about into the sea?” he asked. Negative international public opinion doesn’t keep him awake nights. The Christians believe that in the private circles of most Western governments there is scant concern for human lives when the stakes are as high as in Lebanon. If the rightists can crush the Palestinians in the one country where they still operate freely, then the whole Middle East situation could improve dramatically. Against this, what price the lives of children or the psychological scars of a brutalized country when the war is finally ended?

The combatants’ taste for bloodshed has not been sated and the efforts of the Arab League to reestablish peace are pitiful to watch. The league’s special envoy, Dr. alKholi, moves among the various rival factions on the right and left, discussing ceasefires that never work, trying to save lives where he can, listening to assurances he knows are lies, hearing demands that are transparent attempts to buy time at the price of more dead civilians. At a recent news conference, al-Kholi was asked simply: “What happened today?” He sat for a full two minutes, fighting back tears. Finally he left the room without a word.

The war in Lebanon may last another year or more and at this point it seems the

outcome must be total victory for one side, probably the Christians. When the final showdown comes, the brutality and death toll are likely to be far worse than anything seen so far. The Australian mercenary, Blue, discussing how he would take the Palestinian area of Sabra on the outskirts of Beirut, offers some chilling prospects: “You just move along both sides of the street, dynamiting the buildings, and you shoot everyone—men, women and children. No problem.” In Tel Zaatar, the morning after the Christians stormed it, the gunmen arrived to begin looting. They drove trucks over corpses to get into position to load televisions, stoves, refrigerators and other equipment that had survived a 52-day bombardment. A bulldozer scraped hundreds of bodies off the road, some of them still bleeding. The smell was overpowering. I used my shirt, soaked with sweat, to cover my nose and mouth. A Christian gunman surveyed the scene ecstatically and asked: “Isn’t it beautiful?”

PETER NIESEWAND