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Christians struggle amid fear in Lebanon's holy war

As Syrian soldiers advanced past this mountain town two weeks ago on their way to confront Lebanese forces led by the rebellious Christian leader, Gen. Michel Aoun, they ordered Fares Mukheiber to stop his car. But Mukheiber, who is deaf and cannot speak, did not hear them. So they sprayed him with bullets. He pulled up by the side of the road and stumbled out, bleeding, gesticulating, trying to force out helpless, protesting sounds, residents here said.

The Syrians left him. His pregnant wife, also deaf and unable to speak, struggled back behind the steering wheel of their car and drove off, with their 3-year-old daughter, to a close relative, a doctor. But Mukheiber could not be saved.

Mukheiber was one of at least four civilians shot and killed in Beit Meri Oct. 13, when Syrian troops charged into this picturesque resort town, a favored spot for church weddings and honeymoons.

The other three were women, according to inhabitants of the neighboring village of Dahr al Sowan. "The wife of Rizkallah Jalkh was warned to stay away from a window when she left her shelter. When her shadow appeared, the Syrians gunned her down," said Mireille Ghobril, 21.

Two priests, the Revs. Albert Sherfan, who ran the music academy in the Deir al Qalaa monastery in Beit Meri, and Suleiman Abi Khalil, are still missing. "We demand that

the truth on their fate be unveiled," the Council of Maronite Patriarchs said in a statement last week.

According to a relief source, the priests were killed because seven Lebanese soldiers fleeing the Syrians hid in their midst. A nun in Beirut, who refused to be identified, claimed that the priests had been stripped, shot and dumped in a well.

When villagers were asked several days ago what had happened to the priests, they said a shell had landed at an army checkpoint nearby and killed them. The damaged and deserted monastery is banned to visitors.

These few incidents, along with others, will soon be forgotten outside Lebanon. But among residents of the Christian enclave that Gen. Aoun had ruled, they have instilled a sense of terror, shock and defeat. Many residents of east Beirut and surrounding towns, when approached, now refuse to talk about their apprehensions, but relief workers and missionaries say there is a loss of faith, latent fear and suppressed rage.

The first hours of the Syrian-led offensive that toppled Gen. Aoun on Oct. 13 triggered a wave of violence that is still difficult to sort out two weeks later.

There were reports of an ambush of Syrian troops, followed by executions of Lebanese soldiers. Then came the brutal shooting of Christian National Liberal Party leader Dany Chamoun, his wife Ingrid, and their two sons Sunday morning.

Hospital and security officials estimated a week ago that 700 Syrian and Lebanese had died during the intense fight Oct. 13. It has been impossible to verify this number, in part because the Syrians took their dead back home. But officials at Aley hospital said they received about 200 Syrian dead immediately after the fighting, and the official Lebanese estimates of 400 to 450 Syrian dead are probably fairly accurate.

The death toll among Aoun's Christian soldiers was probably at least 300, based on conversations with hospital officials in east Beirut and Baabda.

The civilian death toll among Christians was much smaller. Despite brutal incidents in Beit Meri and other villages, there is no evidence of widespread massacres of unarmed civilians. Two days after the fighting, news agencies estimated 46 civilians had died. But in the Christian community, the psychological impact of the Syrian-led attack transcends the death toll.

A nun who visited the village of Bsous, near Baabda, after the ouster of Aoun said she came back shattered. Fourteen men were called out of their homes and shot by Syrian soldiers, she said.

"Some were lined against the wall, others shot when they opened their doors," she said, asking not to be identified. Villagers had tried to resist and shot at the Syrians when they approached the town, according to some reports.

"People are biting their wounds in silence. Who dares speak?" the nun said. "The Christians have hit rock bottom now. If the world does not want Christians to live in Lebanon, they should tell us and we will leave, but don't kill us like this.

"It is true we bear a big cross, but people are giving up on faith. They don't want to pray with us anymore. We try to tell them that we were wrong to attach ourselves to one individual (Aoun) and should attach ourselves to God, but they do not want to believe anymore."

Echoes of her despair reverberate throughout Christian Lebanon.

"The nightmare continues. People are stunned and they cannot handle it anymore," said Mary Dib, a professor of public health at the American University of Beirut, who commutes from Moslem west to Christian east Beirut on weekends.

Walid Abi Saleh, a young Christian interior designer, lost his father in 1982, when a sniper gunned him down along Beirut's dividing Green Line. "The wheel has turned and turned for us, and stopped at zero," Abi Saleh lamented. "We got used to fighting the odds, struggling, all those years. It became a habit. No Lebanese can now believe the war is over, and his side has won. Everyone is disappointed."

His wife, Nada, an account executive at a local advertising firm, was even more downcast. "We feel vanquished today," she said. "We are defeated, we lost the war, and we don't feel at home anymore."

After the Syrians routed him from the presidential palace on the outskirts of Beirut, Aoun fled to the French Embassy, where he remains holed up. France has granted him political asylum, but Aoun has not been allowed to leave. The Lebanese government of President Elias Hrawi wants to try him on criminal charges, including theft of state funds.

"Aoun is at the French Embassy, there is no cause anymore. Dany (Chamoun) is dead, and other followers of Aoun are in hiding. We all blundered, we supported the general and we were let down," a Christian businessman, who gave his name as Dimmy, said. "We really feel leaderless and deeply hurt by what happened. It was not the idea of one man, but of a country we wanted free. We don't want to live in a police state."

Holding on to what they want to believe would have been their deliverance, many Christians are still supportive of Aoun, who articulated the frustrated visions of a Lebanon free of militia rule and outside occupiers.

But other Christians blame Aoun for their misfortune. "If I were to see Aoun now, I could beat him up or shoot him. No other Christian leader has made us lose so much," an economist exclaimed over dinner.

"We don't believe in anything anymore. Even if Jesus Christ were to come along, I would not fight for him or back him," Abi Saleh said, expressing the disillusionment and cynicism of many of his generation who grew up in a war that, in the end, left them without any heroes. He was 8 when the civil war broke out in 1975.

Rosy Abourousse, a boutique owner in Christian east Beirut, insists that the fall of Christian areas into Syrian hands is a defeat for all the Lebanese, even those who lived in regions under Syrian control. "My friends in west Beirut tell me that east Beirut was like a shining star, it was free," she said. "It had this light that shimmered in the distance for them."