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Dazed SLA fighters now refugees in Israel


AMNON BEACH, Israel, May 24 (JTA) — When Sa’ad Hawa, a former fighter in the Israel-allied South Lebanon Army, took a bullet in a 1987 battle while fighting alongside Israeli soldiers, he never dreamed he and his comrades would end up in a makeshift transit camp here on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

But this week, Hawa joined the mounting number of confused and dejected SLA fighters and other Lebanese villagers who fled their homes, fearing for their lives after Hezbollah forces secured control of southern Lebanon.

After seeking asylum in Israel, these refugees are now trying to sort out their lives and understand what has happened.

Some of the thousands of refugees were angry at Israel for failing to secure conditions for an orderly withdrawal that would have allowed them to take their belongings with them.

Others said events had simply unfolded too fast.

“The situation was just out of control,” a red-eyed Hawa said Tuesday, his lip trembling as he pondered the chaos of the past three days. “We did not bring anything except for the clothes on our backs. I don’t think we will be going back soon.”

Outside Amnon Beach, a run-down resort now functioning as a transit camp, a convoy of 20 sparkling tourist buses is preparing to take SLA members and their families to various hotels and kibbutzim throughout Israel.

Exhausted women and children peer out of the windows, others are asleep. These are the newest refugees of the Middle East.

Meanwhile, unkempt SLA fighters who belonged to the 80th Battalion in the eastern part of the former security zone mill about, looking confused and dejected.

Many are afraid to provide their names, fearing reprisals against family members who stayed behind. Some still wear the olive-green uniforms bearing the Hebrew insignia of the Israel Defense Force.

Although some dream of the day that they might be allowed to return to their homes, they are not holding their breath.

For now, the alternatives are to stay in Israel or move away to the United States or Europe, where perhaps, the events that created their personal catastrophe may be forgotten.

Just three days ago, these SLA fighters had hoped to hold onto their outposts in the eastern sector of southern Lebanon long enough for arrangements to be made to evacuate their families.

But 22 years of support from Israel may have made the 2,500 SLA militiamen a bit too self confident about their ability to fend for themselves.

Within hours, Israel advised them to flee their predominantly Maronite Christian village of Ayn Dibil before Hezbollah gunmen triumphantly marched in to celebrate what they see as their victory over the Jewish state.

“We had no idea it would disintegrate so fast,” said one SLA soldier. “The Israelis said they would first make arrangements for our families.”

Still, much of the anger was focused on Lebanon. Although the SLA fighters know that they are considered traitors in Lebanon, they insist they had fought to protect themselves, first against Palestinian guerrilla groups some 20 years ago, later against Hezbollah.

Some hoped an arrangement with the government might allow them to stay in their homes.

“Lebanon has no control over the situation,” said Dori, who crossed the border with his brother, an SLA fighter, and many other family members. “There are a lot of people in Lebanon who do not want this situation, but they are afraid to speak out. ”

Dori, whose father was killed fighting for the SLA during its early years, speaks fluent Hebrew, sports a ponytail and works as a bellboy at a hotel in Herzliya. He is among about 2,500 civilians from southern Lebanon who have enjoyed the privilege of working inside Israel.

“When the Israelis left we only hoped the Lebanese army would come, but Hezbollah came instead and we had no choice,” he said.

Some people did have a choice. Many of the SLA’s Shi’ite Muslim fighters — who made up about 60 percent of the militia — opted to stay in Lebanon hoping their ethnic ties with Hezbollah would keep them safe. There were few Shi’ites among the refugees.

Christians felt less secure. “We cannot go back,” said one Christian SLA member. “Anyone who has left home as a traitor will be killed.”

Refugees who have been in contact with their relatives who stayed behind say there were reports of Hezbollah blowing up homes that belonged to SLA officers. Other stories were being told of Hezbollah taking over a local church for Muslim prayers.

Hezbollah gunmen also ransacked the home of the SLA’s commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad, who is now in Israel.

But by Wednesday afternoon, there were few confirmed reports of more serious Hezbollah reprisals — and most of the SLA members who stayed behind were transferred to the Lebanese authorities for trial.

Meanwhile, the refugees realized the gates were quickly shutting behind them.

Naim Munther, a Druse SLA fighter, was standing at the roadside with his family desperate to catch a taxi back to the border after hearing from family members he would be safe.

His wife was in tears, realizing that they could lose any chance to get their home back if they did not move fast.

He was furious at Israel, despite pledges from senior officials to help all refugees start a new life.

“We served them, walked with them and fought with them and they just dropped us like dogs,” said Munther. “Why should I come here?”

As others come to terms with losing their homes, they expect Israel to make good on its promises.

“They have a moral obligation to us,” said one SLA fighter speaking fluent Hebrew. “We helped Israel a lot over the years. All we ask now is that the Israelis please help us.”

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