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After Israel: A Lebanese Village Struggles

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Nearly six years have passed since Israel withdrew its forces from South Lebanon. Since then, although there have been occasional incidents along the border, the world's attention has largely shifted elsewhere. Many of those living in the area occupied by Israel have been rebuilding their lives, but some have found it difficult.

NPR's Philip Reeves visited one village close to the border and sent this report.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Akhmed Mohammed (ph) ought to be a happy man. These days, life on the troubled landscape where he was born is mostly quiet. Apart from occasional skirmish, you'd hardly know his home is close to one of the Middle East's political fault lines, where the Israeli, Lebanese, and Syrian frontiers converge. Yet, Akhmed Mohammed says something is missing from his life, or rather some people. Several hundred fellow villagers have yet to return home.

MR. AKHMED MOHAMMED (Resident, of Al Wazzani): (Through translator) There's nothing, there's no incentive to come back. I mean, what are they going to come back and do? There's no incentive for somebody young to come back.

REEVES: By back he means here to Al Wazzani, a tumble down farming village set in the stark hills of South Lebanon, a few dozen miles inland from the Mediterranean.

The surrounding landscapes have changed since Israel's withdrawal in May, 2000. Billboards advertising soft drinks and sofas have appeared along the road leading to what was once the occupied zone. You see banana plantations, the beginnings of lavish new mansions. All this, amid monuments erected by Hezbollah to their war dead.

But Wazzani is still waiting to bloom. For that to happen says Akhmed Mohammed, who's head of the municipality, the residents who left during the years of conflict, some two-thirds of the entire village he estimates, would have to come back home.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) I blame also people that have left for not coming back to the village. For not keeping the contact with the village. And even if my kids moved out I'd still want them to have contact with this village.

REEVES: History has not been kind to Wazzani. On at least four occasions, says Akhmed Mohammed, starting with the 1948 Israel-Arab war, residents have left, forced out by conflict.

The village Mukhta (ph), Akhmed Mohammed says the Lebanese government should created incentives for people to return. Matters aren't helped, he says, by the loss of village grazing land to new, agricultural projects for growing wheat and watermelons.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) The land is now rented by large landowners who rent out this land that we used to rent out at a much lower price before that we could afford and where we could grow wheat and fodder for our cows and sheep. Now, we can't do that.

REEVES: That's a minor matter compared to the key issue facing the inhabitants of this landscape. The still unresolved borders between Syria, Israel and Lebanon. That's been a source of chronic tension in the Middle East for years. And for those living here, a daily practical problem.

Deep Akhmed (ph), a grizzled looking Shepherd in his late 70s, has driven his flocks around these parts for decades. Settling the border issue for once and for all, he says, is crucial for the people of Wazzani.

Mr. DEEP AKHMED (Shepherd): (Through translator) It there's a solution, then everybody can be safe on their own land. But now you can sort of walk down the street and who knows, you might get a bullet just for walking down the street.

REEVES: That view is shared by Akhmed Mohammed as he waits for his fellow villagers one day to come home.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) It's important that the border be delineated because every person should take their right. We don't want to take more than is authorized, but we don't want anybody else to take land that is ours. So, if the border is clear, then everybody gets what's theirs.

REEVES: That, of course, is where the problem lies. The situation is not clear. And in this part of the world, people find it hard to agree on what is theirs and what is not.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.