‘This area has a geographical curse’: Residents along Lebanon’s border with Israel fear another war

Damond Isiaka
9 Min Read

Marjayoun, Lebanon
CNN
 — 

In the town of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon, around five miles north of the Israeli border, the main square seems almost abandoned.

A few men play billiards in a storefront nestled in a building crowned with life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint Charbel, a revered Lebanese saint.

They don’t want to talk about the wars and rumors of war that for decades have plagued this predominantly Christian town near the border.

Journalists are a bother, one grumbles, and goes back to the game.

On the other side of the square, a woman in her thirties comes out of a grocery store with a small bag.

“Marjayoun is very nice, it’s fantastic,” the woman, Claude, tells me. “But the shelling scares us.” That’s all she wants to say.

Throughout the day, occasional thuds of incoming and outgoing fire echo through the streets.

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have risen sharply since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing military campaign by Israel in Gaza. The Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah has been firing missiles, mortars and drones into Israel, and Israel has returned that fire.

Tens of thousands of people on both sides of the mountainous border have fled as concerns intensify about the possible outbreak of another full-fledged war.

On the Lebanese side, residents of Shia-majority towns like Kafr Kila, Adaisa, Aita Al-Shaab and Aitaroun have almost all left. Frequent Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages have reduced many of these communities to rubble.

Damaged property in the town of Marjayoun, southern Lebanon.

Marjayoun, in comparison, has been mostly spared.

The town was the headquarters of the Israeli-armed and funded South Lebanese Army (SLA), a Christian-led proxy militia, during Israel’s decades-long occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended 24 years ago after a protracted guerilla war with Hezbollah.

When Israel pulled out in 2000, many of Marjayoun’s inhabitants fled south across the border to Israel, fearful of being accused by fellow Lebanese citizens of being collaborators with Israel.

Their departure, along with Lebanon’s collapsed economy, fear of yet another prolonged conflict, the absence of a functioning state and emigration have sapped Marjayoun of people and prosperity.

Yet, more than two decades later, some residents still cling to their ancient town and vow not to leave.

“I feel this area has a geographical curse. There has always been tension,” Edouard Achy told me. “The threats are coming from both sides of the border. Tensions are increasing day by day. Everything points to something about to happen.”

Is he going to leave, I ask.

He shrugs. “After more than eight months of this situation, people just want calm and quiet,” he says.

Sunday mass at the Maronite Church in the town of Marjayoun, southern Lebanon. Around 90,000 residents are said to have left the south of the country since October 7th amid ongoing tensions between Hezbollah and Israel.

His sister, Amal, and her family have come to church to say a special prayer to mark 40 days since her mother died. Dressed in black with a crucifix around her neck, she brought large loaves of bread and bags of buns to share with the congregation.

Amal exudes a strong connection with her hometown, but wonders how much longer it will be safe as the clouds of war gather overhead.

“We’re staying put, and God willing, we’ll continue to stay,” she insisted. “The south is the Holy Land. The Messiah tread here two thousand years ago.”

She paused and sighed. “But if things escalate to war and it reaches here like it did before, with some shelling, of course, like others, we’ll have to leave,” she said.

‘In war, everyone loses’

Half an hour away, in the mostly Druze town of Hasbaya, 85-year-old Abu Nabil sweeps the street outside his shop.

The Druze faith is an offshoot of Islam, with adherents found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan.

A pious man with a gentle smile and a bushy white moustache, he looks on the bright side of life. “The Lord is merciful to us,” he says. “We can sleep in our homes. We eat. We drink. No one goes hungry.”

85-year-old Abu Nabil, a resident of the town Hasbaya, tells CNN there is no winner in a war.

Since his birth, Abu Nabil saw Lebanon gain its independence from France in 1943, prosper during the 1960s, become engulfed by civil war, invaded and partially occupied by Israel for decades, and partially occupied by Syria, also for decades.

He has seen the country emerge from civil war, embroiled in war again with Israel in 2006, wracked by a string of high-profile assassinations, convulsed by a short-lived revolution in 2019, followed by economic collapse, and now once again, on the brink of full-scale war with Israel.

“War is ruinous,” he says, grasping my hand. “In war, everyone loses, even the winner.”

Across the street, young men drink coffee from small paper cups while smoking cigarettes. They don’t want trouble, they say, declining to be interviewed.

The worry here, and in many parts of Lebanon, is that if you speak out against Hezbollah, there could be a price to pay. Some people do, some politicians do, but when Hezbollah lives nearby, it’s best not to take the risk.

“Gaza is not my war, and I don’t want to pray in Jerusalem,” one of the men insisted.

Another said one of reasons not one Israeli missile, bomb or artillery round has landed in Hasbaya is because young men act as a sort of armed community watch, making sure no one, neither Hezbollah nor Hamas, fires anything at Israel. It’s not their turf and they’re not welcome here, they say.

Down the hill, there’s a traffic jam on the road leading out of Hasbaya west towards Marjayoun. Cars crawl at a snail’s pace, drivers sticking their heads out to see what it’s all about.

A large group of men, women and children stand around a new white stone building, all dressed in their best. Parked in front is a shining white convertible, the bonnet covered with bouquets of flowers and a license plate reads, in English, “Newly Married.”

A group of men arrives in traditional Druze clothing—with small turbans, vests and low-crotched trousers—carrying drums and horns.

As people leave the building, musicians strike up a raucous tune with a heavy beat and high notes, while others twirl prayer beads over their heads.

The bride, Fatin, in a long lacy dress, and the groom, Taymour, emerge into the sunlight, and everyone cheers.

I decide not to interfere with annoying questions about Israel, Hezbollah, impending war, death, destruction and displacement. Everyone is happy, enjoying the bright June afternoon, the noise, the presence of friends and relatives. “Why spoil such a beautiful day?” I think.

Looking at the festivities, you’d never guess that Israeli forces are only about five miles away and that, not far from here, deadly projectiles are being hurtled back and forth across the border.

The irony, however, was not lost on one man, who leaned over with a chuckle, “We’re celebrating here while war is around the corner.”

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