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Emptied by worries of war, a tiny Christian town clings to Lebanon's edge

AIN EBEL, Lebanon — The church bells still ring in Ain Ebel, but there’s hardly anyone left to hear them.

The small Christian village of about 1,500 is only a few miles from Lebanon’s border with Israel — an island in an ocean of mostly Shiite Muslims governed by the dominant militant group, Hezbollah.

As cross-border shelling between Hezbollah and Israel has increased over the past few weeks, the majority of the women and children have fled, mostly to Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.

That has left mostly adult men, about 40% of the population, and an eerie silence along empty streets lined with shuttered shops and restaurants. The one open restaurant hosted a few men smoking cigarettes and watching the events in Gaza unfold on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network.

“I am telling all the families that are in Beirut, ‘Please don’t return now. Let’s wait and see what will happen,’” said Imad Lalous, 70, the town’s mayor. “And then we will instruct them to come. But I don’t think it’s going to be very soon.”

The men who remain say they’re here to protect their homes from thieves. But they also answer to a deeper calling: Like so many vulnerable communities throughout the Middle East, they worry that leaving their homes could invite a kind of cleansing of the region’s only bastion of Christian identity — that abandoning their homes could allow their Shiite neighbors to swallow Ain Ebel whole.

A bartender in Ain Ebel watches the latest events unfolding in Gaza on Al Jazeera.
A bartender in Ain Ebel watches the latest events unfolding in Gaza.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

Lebanon’s history of sectarian conflict dates back generations. But political tension between some Christians and Shiite Muslims was exacerbated by the country’s 15-year communal civil war that ended in 1990.

“We cannot leave this place because our forefathers came here. They paid in blood. Innocent people have died because of this piece of land,” said Rakan Diab, 34, a program manager whose pregnant wife and child are now waiting out the war in Beirut. “It’s the identity. It’s the community. It’s everything. If we lose this, we lose everything.”

Diab spoke while standing on a bluff overlooking the nearby, mostly Shiite town of Yaroun. The pastoral vista shook with tremors from shelling, and every few moments, bits of the landscape burst into three-story clouds of dust and debris.

Israeli artillery was on Ain Ebel’s doorstep, and Diab never stuttered. His eyelids never so much as quivered.

“It’s ridiculous. Maybe we should rethink this,” he said, apparently reflecting on the speech he had just delivered about preserving his ancestors’ legacy. “But up till now, I think this place has meant more to us than our physical integrity and safety.”

But remaining is the only real weapon the men of Ain Ebel are willing to wield. Like many Lebanese communities, it has a martial history that has bled into the present. The community seems determined to sit out this latest war even as it envelops them.

The Rev. Hanna Shakrallah Suleiman, the pastor of Our Lady of Ain Ebel Maronite Church, proudly showed off a monument to the “Massacre of 1920” — Christians killed fighting the town’s Shiite Muslim neighbors. Another hulking monument next to it commemorates the assassination of Elias Hasrouty, a local Christian politician who was killed only a few months ago.

There are other less modest monuments nearby. With the help of donations from Christian expatriates, Ain Ebel is building a 200-foot tower outside the village that will be topped with a 45-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, offering visitors a viewing platform to gaze at the surrounding landscape — overlooking the village’s Muslim neighbors.

The project is “a national symbol of Christian existence in the south,” says the incomplete tower’s website.

Suleiman insists that the village enjoys peace with the communities around it, but his language is infused with fatalism.

“Every baptized Christian is liable for martyrdom. If they want to kill us because we are Christians, we approve this death in the name of God,” he said calmly. “I am not scared of anyone but God. This land is ours, and we are staying in it.”

Suleiman pointed to the cracks in the chapel’s ceiling that opened when shells struck the church’s roof during the last major war in 2006.

It’s because of the memories of that war — a huge, monthlong fight between Hezbollah and Israel that left more than 1,200 Lebanese dead — that the people of this community have fled.

But for some, flight is an unaffordable luxury. The Ayoub family tried it a few weeks ago but returned to Ain Ebel when they ran out of money.

Safety requires cash and connections, none of which Sharbi Ayyoub has on his salary as a village municipal employee and part-time pig farmer. So his wife, Vivian, and their five children will have to witness the war first-hand.

“The plane was flying in the sky, and it almost ripped the door off!” his son Hanna chirped while showing off cellphone video of shelling he shot from the yard of his modest home.

“It was like ‘whoosh!,’” said his excited younger brother Amin.

8 year old Amin Al Ayoub shovels olive leaves as the olive oil season begins in southern Lebanon. He and his family do not have the means to leave their village of Ain Ebel and tell NBC News they have heard the sound of clashes between hizbullah and Israel increasing in recent days.
Amin Al Ayoub, 8, shovels leaves as the olive oil season begins in southern Lebanon. He and his family do not have the means to leave their village, Ain Ebel.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

“The July War wasn’t like this war. … This war is harder,” said Vivian, referring to the 2006 conflict. “You knew there were strikes and bombing. … This war is a mental war. You can’t let your kid go outside and play this time.”

For everyone here, it’s hard not to fantasize about living life elsewhere, where the noises of shelling and fighter jets would sound startling rather than routine.

But that would mean abandoning a generations-long commitment to martyrdom — a distinctly Middle Eastern project that demands that its sons safeguard their land by throwing their bodies on top of it.

“Sadly, I think resilience is generally a positive trait. But in Lebanon, it has become a negative trait. We’ve been too resilient. We’ve been too quiet,” said Diab. “We keep taking the hit in the name of resilience, but I think it’s time we stopped being resilient and we just say ‘no.’”

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