When Qantara finally came back to life
The former residents of Qantara had been considering returning to their occupied homes for at least nine months, ever since the South Lebanon Army militia had vacated its outpost in the center of the village and moved to a new position on Mheisbat hill, 3 kilometers to the east.
But access to the narrow rutted lane that led from Ghandourieh through Wadi Hojeir to Qantara was blocked by a checkpoint manned by Finnish UNIFIL peacekeepers. Civilians were forbidden from entering the front-line area, the scene of bitter clashes between the resistance and Israeli troops.
“Every time there was a funeral for someone from Qantara we would meet in Ghandourieh and ask UNIFIL to let us back,” said Ahmad Beshara, the mukhtar of Qantara. “But they told us that the village was still occupied and it was too dangerous. We were waiting for the smallest light to allow us back.”
Their chance came in mid-May 2000, when Israeli troops handed over the Taibe outpost to the SLA. The militia abandoned the Mheisbat and Qsair outposts at the same time, leaving a large chunk of the central sector outside the direct control of the occupation forces.
Sabaha Awada and her two daughters, Norma 17, and Sawsan, 19, were among the crowd of around 40 residents who had gathered in Ghandourieh to offer condolences to the family of Zeinab Deeb, who had died a week earlier. Awada had not set foot in Qantara for 15 years.
“We just couldn’t believe we were about to go back to our village. It was like a dream come true,” she said.
Also in Ghandourieh was Marjayoun/Hasbaya MP Nazih Mansour, a member of Hizbullah’s parliamentary bloc. He was familiar with the area, having been born and raised in Taibe.
“When I arrived at noon, one of our people said: ‘Do you want to go to Qantara?’ I had my bodyguard and two others with me. We headed toward Qantara immediately.”
The UNIFIL soldiers manning the checkpoint at the entrance of the road to Qantara were unable to stop the crowd. A mass of cars and residents on foot, cheering and waving flags, followed Mansour as he sped down the twisting, potholed lane into the depths of Wadi Hojeir.
In Qantara, Hajj Ali Atwi, 70, was working in his fields while his wife, Wahiba, 50, washed clothes on the doorstep. They were among the 30 residents still living in the village.
“We had heard rumors that the village would be liberated,” Wahiba said. “In the afternoon, UNIFIL blocked the road leading to Taibe with four tanks (armored personnel carriers).
“My son, Mustafa, who speaks English, asked the Finnish soldiers what was going on. But they said nothing was happening. Mustafa came to the house and said people were entering the village. I asked him what he was talking about. He pointed to the west and said many cars were heading toward the village.
“Then I saw 12 SLA men heading cross-country from the direction of Mheisbat. My husband went into the village and told people to be careful. We didn’t know at the time that the militiamen were deserting.”
Mansour was the first civilian to enter Qantara. He stopped outside a house at the entrance of the village.
“I entered the house and saw an old man and woman,” Mansour said. “I recognized the man as Abdo Saghir. He used to take me to school from Taibe to Nabatieh. He was scared and didn’t recognize me. I told him who I was and he yelled and burst into tears. I began crying too, and we both hugged each other.”
The word was spreading rapidly and hundreds of people from all over the South began heading toward Qantara.
“I started shaking when I saw all these people,” Wahiba said. “It was a huge surprise. It was like we had been dead and then reborn.”
For Rammal, the Amal fighter, the feeling of joy at the liberation of the village was tinged with sadness.
“The village was in ruins, barely any buildings remained standing. I remembered my friends and family who had died over the years,” he said.
Amid the scenes of celebration, Mansour debated whether to continue to other villages or remain in Qantara.
“We prayed first,” he said. “Then I decided to continue. The road was jammed with cars so I jumped on the back of a motorcycle and we drove toward Qsair. Others began following us.”
Upon reaching the entrance of Qsair, Mansour found his path blocked at a UNIFIL checkpoint. An APC was parked across the narrow road and armed soldiers stood on the other side of a locked gate.
“We told them these were our villages. They said we couldn’t go any further. The people were waiting to see what I would do. The decision wasn’t easy. We didn’t know for sure if the militia had left the area completely. But we felt ourselves compelled to continue. So I grabbed the gate and began shaking it with my hands. Everyone joined me and within 15 minutes we had knocked the gate over. The UNIFIL soldiers saw we were not going to stop and moved the (APC) off the road.”
The crowd surged into Qsair, then headed east along the single road running parallel to the Litani River gorge, through the abandoned village of Alman and on to Deir Sirian.
The jubilant residents greeted the throng by throwing handfuls of rice. Sheep were slaughtered in the street to honor their liberators.
Finally, the cavalcade entered the outskirts of Taibe, the largest village in the area. SLA militiamen were still manning the heavily-reinforced outpost on the hill overlooking the village.
“The scenes in Taibe were indescribable,” Mansour said. “People were running out of their houses barefoot to greet us. It was a truly historic moment.”
The militiamen in the outpost fired a few warning shots over the crowd but were unable to quell the triumphant advance. Using a loudhailer, Mansour called on the militiamen to surrender. About 15 of them did.
The others began abandoning the position and heading down a back road to Addaisseh, 2.5 kilometers east of Taibe.
By early evening, the Israelis were scrambling to check the headlong civilian advance. A bulldozed earth barricade blocked the road to Addaisseh and tanks manoeuvred into position on the outskirts of the village.
The occupation zone was in danger of being cut in two. Only the road through Addaisseh still connected the northern and eastern sectors of the occupation zone to the central and western sectors.
Hizbullah’s leadership was as stunned as everyone else at the turn of events. But the resistance also recognized the potential advantage in exploiting the sudden development.
As night fell, resistance fighters went on stand-by throughout the South as Hizbullah’s local commanders turned their attention to another occupied village lying 8.5 kilometers south of Qantara: Houla.