Criticism of gov’t abounds in south

KFAR ROUMAN, Lebanon —Blacksmith Mohammad Jouny, embittered by his government’s failure to come to the aid of south Lebanon, opposes the deployment of an international force along the border with Israel. He and his family want to see the Lebanese army there instead.

The Jounys are ardent supporters of Hizbollah, a sentiment that appears to be shared by most of the Shiites who are predominant in the south. They are convinced that if Israel hands back Shebaa farms, a tiny slice of land claimed by Lebanon, Hizbollah will voluntarily disarm. “Where is the government?” said Jouny, 54 and father of four. “No one bothered to come and see what’s happening to us in the south. It’s the government’s duty,” he said angrily.

The Hizbollah-Israel fighting has forced some 750,000 people to flee their homes, mostly in the south. Many of those staying behind are running out of food or money and international relief has been slow to get to them.

Those who fled but are too poor to sustain themselves are dependent on handouts from charities. They are worried the generosity shown to them so far could wane if the war drags on.

Hizbollah has won much of its support through a large network of health, social and economic services built over the past 20 years, but these have been crippled by the fighting and the Shiite group appears to be doing little relief work for its supporters.

Hizbollah, maintained Jouny and other family members, was doing its part for Lebanon by standing up to Israel in a war now well into its third week. The government, they insisted, should care for the people.

Jouny, his brother Youssef, cousin Ali, their wives and children — 16 in all — share a two-storey house. They have used ingenuity, a vegetable garden and a few fruit trees to keep food on the table at this time of crisis.

Perched on a hill some three  kilometers east of the market town of Nabatiyeh, the Jounys’ house has a front- yard in which they have peach, almond and fig trees.

Fortunately for them, the peaches and figs are in season.

The Jounys also grow cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in a tiny plot of land they own and which is a short distance from their house.

On Friday, most of the family gathered at the house’s entrance. The men smoked water pipes and drank Arabic coffee served in tiny china cups. Young women, like Jouny’s daughters Ranya, Rana and Roula, actively conversed with a family guest.

The older women said little but listened attentively. The men were keen to be heard, offering strong views on everything from Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s leadership style, anti-Shiite sentiments in the mostly Sunni Arab world to US policies and their deep resentment of Israel.

The Jounys have a makeshift underground shelter, but it’s not big enough for everyone. So, only Jouny’s wife, Sobeiha, daughters Ranya and Roula, Youssef Jouny, his wife and four children — ages two to eight — sleep there. The rest sleep in their beds.

“That’s what we do to pass the time during this war,” said Ranya, a 27-year-old school- teacher and by far the most conversational of the Jounys.

“We sit around and talk. In the evening, we watch the news.” But passing the time is not the only challenge facing the Jounys.

Israeli warplanes have been active in the Nabatiyeh area and hardly a day went by since the Israel-Hizbollah fighting began July 12 without at least one air strike.

Israel also shells nearby areas with artillery.

The sound of blasts reverberates across the hills and the Jounys speak with horror of blasts shattering the still of the night, waking up everyone and making the children scream. The dusty streets of Kfar Rouman — population 11,000 and famous for its high quality Mouloukhiya, a plant whose green leaves are used to make a soup-like dish popular in the Middle East — were virtually deserted Friday, although the Jounys said no more than 10 per  cent of residents have fled.

Most of the world sees the idea of moving UN-mandated forces into south Lebanon as aimed at protecting Israel against Hizbollah rockets. But many in south Lebanon view the conflict in completely opposite terms.

They want a force to protect them against Israel, which has invaded twice before in the past 30 years. In their eyes, Hizbollah has played that role — and they believe international troops will do nothing if Israel strikes southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese army, they say, will protect them if Hizbollah is not allowed to.

The proposal for an international force is gaining momentum. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is seeking international agreement on a UN-mandated multinational force that can provide stability and end the crisis.

But not every Jouny was opposed to the deployment of an international force.

One cousin, another Ali Jouny, dropped by the Jounys’ house and soon declared in a stage-like tone of voice that he had a message for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“Tell him that I, Ali Jouny from Kfar Rouman, say that he should return our prisoners, leave the Shebaa farms and allow an international force to come to the border.” “An international force is completely rejected here,” chipped in Mahmoud Jouny, Mohammad Jouny’s 27-year-old nephew who was visiting from Norway where he lives when the fighting began.

“We want the Lebanese army,” said the young Jouny, in a white sleeveless undershirt. Someone else shouted that it should be a combined force — the army and Hizbollah — and that an international force would just step aside every time Israel wanted to come inside Lebanon.

Every adult in the Jouny family supports the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbollah, whose fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12.

The closest any of the Jounys came to saying something that may be construed as indirect criticism of Hizbollah was a reference to the horrors of war and the longing for peace.

“We want the war to end today, not tomorrow,” said Youssef Jouny who, like his brother, is also a blacksmith.

“We had enough war. What crime did these little ones commit to live through this,” he said as he pointed to his children and their cousins as they busied themselves going in and out of the shelter through a small shaft past the house’s front entrance.

“It is what Nasrallah always said he wanted,” said Ranya Jouny, the school teacher in a flowing black robe and Islamic headscarf. “To liberate our land and the fighting to stop.”

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