Rshaf braves the hardships of life where SLA militia ‘conducts itself like a feudal warlord’
There can be few places that provide a better example of the misery of the occupation and the courage of those living under the Israeli yoke than the tiny village of Rshaf.
Its collection of ramshackle single-story buildings lies strung along a hilltop, 6 km southwest of Tebnine, just inside the zone. Almost all the houses in the village have been destroyed and only 25 elderly people remain, to eke out a precarious living from the surrounding olive groves and tobacco fields.
The resident’s every move is monitored by the imposing South Lebanon Army position perched on the outskirts of the village. From within its ramparts of sandbags, bulldozed earth, tyres and concrete-filled oil drums, the militiamen dominate life in the village with all the arrogant conduct of a feudal landlord.
“Every day for five years we haven’t been able to leave the confines of the village without permission from the SLA”, said a 63-year-old man, pulling his sheepskin-lined Abaya closer over his shoulders to keep out the cold wind. “If we want to work in our fields or go to Haddatha to buy food, we have to ask first at the compound. Sometimes they say ‘yes’ and we go, other times they say ‘no’ and we have to return home”.
The old man was once a plasterer and found plenty of work in the village before the first Israeli invasion in 1978 when Rshaf boasted a population of 3,000 and was a prosperous agricultural community.
But that all changed on the night of March 16,1978, five days after the invasion began.
Israeli warplanes bombed the village, killing four civilians and destroying nearly every building. The population fled north to Beirut and for six years the village remained deserted. In 1979, Rshaf’s water tower was torn down to make way for the SLA compound.
“We began coming back to the village in 1984 because we felt that the occupation would not last. There was a lot of optimism in the air and for weeks, the residents would bring trucks full of household goods and building materials to repair their homes”, the old man recalled.
But a year later, in 1985, the Israeli forces carved out the present perimeters of the occupation zone and Rshaf found itself cut off when the SLA closed the single road leading out of the village.
The only regular outside contact the few remaining residents have is with soldiers from UNIFIL’s Irish battalion. Lying 400m from the SLA position is the Irish battalion’s 6-27 observation post, commanded by capt David Cowhig.
“Since the road was closed by the DFF (De Facto Forces, Unifil’s acronym for the SLA), the only way for us to enter the village is by foot”, explained Cowhig, as he led his six-man patrol past shattered remains of houses dynamited by the SLA.
The lane between Rshaf and Dibil, 2km south, has recently been resurfaced and is edged on either side by swept earth. “This road is for the DFF and Israelis only. They clear the edges to prevent roadside bombs from being planted”, said Cowhig.
The SLA told the residents in the former centre of Rshaf they could only remain in their homes during daylight. Between dusk and dawn they had to stay at the other end of the village beneath the compound.
Two residents stubbornly refused and today live in their dilapidated homes surrounded by rubble of bombed-out houses.
In winter, Rshaf is a bleak place of mud, destitution and silence. The only sound is that of the icy wind blowing through empty window frames and the gaping shell holes in buildings.
A white-painted prefabricated building in the middle of the village served as the local school.
“There were only eight children in the school and it became impossible to go on”, explained Abdul Hamid Yehia, the Irish battalion’s interpreter for the village.
The small classroom is still furnished. Children’s books lie on a table gathering dust. The presence of the decaying school only emphasizes the fact that there are no children in Rshaf.
For the last six months, the Israelis and the SLA have pressured the few remaining residents to either collaborate with them or to leave the village.
Yehia was forced to leave in September. “They told me I was either for them or against them”, he said. “I replied that I could not work for them, so they gave me 24 hours to leave”.
Yehia departed from the village with his family and now lives in Tibbnine. But the handful of remaining residents, all of them living in dire poverty, have nowhere else to go.
One unmarried woman has to care for her elderly and infirm mother as well as tend her tobacco fields. “My mother is totally paralyzed. She can’t move and she can barely eat. I am the only one who can look after her”, said the woman.
Her mother lay on the floor, swaddled in blankets, trying to draw warmth from an oil-burning stove.
Two other women chatted amiably as the daughter peeled onions.
“It’s a tough life here, especially in winter with the cold and rain”, she said. “But I would never leave. This is my home and we must stay here whatever the circumstances”.
One of the women cracks a joke and the other three laugh. “You see? The smiles keep you going”, said the daughter. “We can never give up. We have no choice but to try and make the best of what we have”.