Page last updated at 06:34 GMT, Friday, 20 July 2007 07:34 UK

Catching up with al-Khiyam

By Martin Asser
BBC News, al-Khiyam, South Lebanon

Two of Lina Atwi's sisters and her brother
Lina Atwi's sisters and young Ali greeted me at their door

It is nearly a year since photographer Phil Coomes and I spent several days in the bombed-out South Lebanon town of al-Khiyam in order to do what we call a laptop link-up for the BBC News website.

Back then the 15,000-strong community was living through a major crisis, with more than 700 houses badly damaged and barely a single home left intact.

Last August, inhabitants were just taking the first steps to recover from the disaster, crowding the municipality building to get water tanks for their homes, mattress to sleep on and food.

Eleven months later the town offers a very different scene. The debris littering the streets is gone; many houses that were mere skeletons have been patched up with fresh brick and concrete.

Many of those we met during our visit last year have resumed their lives with barely a qualm about what they have been through.

"It does not cancel out the fact that we have suffered, but we are people who can tolerate hardship," says school administrator Rim al-Eid, one of our link-up panellists.

"In my lifetime alone were have been bombed out of our homes in al-Khiyam three times, and three times we have rebuilt al-Khiyam."

Wooden schools

But life has changed. For example, Rim and many of al-Khiyam's children have relocated to temporary campuses in the surrounding area. They have been working flat out to catch up on parts of the syllabus they missed last year.

Map showing al-Khiyam

"We work six days a week instead of five. Classes are held in temporary structures. Initially, the children cried out: 'Look our school is made of wood'. They couldn't believe it."

The school library was destroyed; the United Arab Emirates has promised to replace it.

Unfortunately it does seem the disruption has affected results.

Panellist Lina Atwi's 10-year-old twin sisters have both just failed their maths and English exams and will have to resit them.

Lina herself is persevering with her secretarial training, but she seems disillusioned, listless - a very different person to the confident young woman we met last year.

Her family is struggling financially. Mr Atwi, currently with 10 mouths to feed, has a small plot of land where he grows fruit for market and has an income for only a couple of months per year.

"The economic situation is very bad and there is no help from the government," says Um Ali, Lina's mother.

Returning exiles

Lina told us last year that her father was a Hezbollah member who stayed in town to help with the logistical support for the guerrilla fighters during the war, which started on 12 July when the Lebanese guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

See a 360 panorama of laptop link-up from al-Khiyam

This year Um Ali tells me the family has only survived thanks to a monthly hand-out from Hezbollah.

"They look after us because there is no-one else to look after us. It's just a small sum, $300, but otherwise we would have nothing.

Mr Atwi is working on his plot and - apart from one-year-old Ali - there are only women in the house. All the young girls and their mother quickly donned scarves and long cloaks before ushering me in for juice and biscuits.

Lina's second sister has come from Europe for the summer, bringing her young daughter - returning like many of al-Khiyam's expatriate population after last summer's hiatus.

She has only just arrived, but she now wants to go straight back to Germany.

"There is nothing for the children to do here. There is no money, and nowhere to go even if we did have any," she says.

Priority has been given to rebuilding homes: the infrastructure for leisure activity has not even been thought of yet.

Dark past

Al-Khiyam's only potential tourist attraction, notwithstanding the fact the town is located in an area of great natural beauty, remains the notorious "collaborators' prison".

Hezbollah and Lebanese flags fly over old SLA jeep
The prison is under Hezbollah control

While the area was under Israeli occupation, the detention centre run by Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, was a place of torture, abuse and detention without trial.

Since its liberation in 2000 the compound became a memorial to its own dark past, now under Hezbollah's control.

As we reported last year, it was bombed almost to oblivion by Israel's military, and as predicted most of the rubble has been preserved to commemorate "US-Zionist crimes".

Only the restaurant outside the prison gates has been restored to its former glory.

On the day of my visit it was hosting a large gathering of clerics and local officials to mark the start of the Sincere Promise War, as Hezbollah supporters call it.

But one finds little enthusiasm for the prison as a much-needed economic asset for the town.

"All the visitors to do is, come, have a piss, and then leave," as one Khiyami resident said.


I'm not able to catch up with all our panellists: I miss would-be emigre Nabil Yahya and the fiery Fairuz Abu Abbas, and I only briefly meet the mukhtar, Ahmed Hassan and NGO worker Pierra Wanna, who is training in Tyre for a public health project to help teenagers with post-traumatic stress.

Nabil did go to Germany as he was planning, but has now returned to al-Khiyam; one can only assume he did not find the better life he was looking for.

Israeli bombardment of al-Khiyam, southern Lebanon
Large parts of al-Khiyam were pulverised by Israeli bombing

Last year, Ahmed was fulfilling his community role vouching for people - homeless recipients of Hezbollah stipends who needed money to pay the rent.

This time, by coincidence, he was busy with a similar job, this time so they could receive compensation for destroyed furniture.

Although Hezbollah has handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars here - money believed to come from Iran - it is Qatar that has stepped in to fund the reconstruction work.

Unlike money from Saudi Arabia, which has been delayed as it passes through the government in Beirut, Qatari money is paid direct. Throughout the town the sounds of hammering, generators and construction ring out.

So far the Qataris have given two tranches of money to bombed-out households: $10,000 for initial preparations, preparing the ground, and $20,000 to begin structural work.

A third larger tranche is still awaited, but residents do not know yet what it will be or whether it will cover the whole cost of reconstruction. For the moment many sit, contentedly, in half-finished homes.

"Of course we are happy and grateful to Qatar," says Rim. "This is the first time anyone from abroad has come to help us rebuild and we really appreciate it."

Read Martin Asser's other reports:

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


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