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Christian Lebanese shelter Muslim evacuees
31 July 2006

Residents of Beirut cater for the children of the displaced, giving them warm showers at home on a daily basis. (Courtesy: Reuters)Residents of Beirut cater for the children of the displaced, giving them warm showers at home on a daily basis. (Courtesy: Reuters)
Beirut, Lebanon: Fleeing the apocalyptic scene in the south, thousands of Lebanese Shiites have found solace in Beirut's Christian neighbourhoods whose residents raced to accommodate and cater for the shell-shocked evacuees.

"At first, we felt very unwelcome. People frowned at us or made comments on our veils," Labibeh Khorshid told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"But now, we feel overwhelmed. They are giving us clothes, food, medicine and all," said the grateful woman.

Her 10-year-old son Tamer is very happy. His eyes sparkle when he recalls the heartfelt stories told to the displaced children by two volunteer women — both Christian.

"I wish we could return this favour," Khorshid said sitting in the courtyard of a public school turned into a centre for destitute displaced people in Karm Al-Zaytun, a Christian quarter of Beirut where crucifixes stand on every corner.

She said that ever since their arrival residents of the neighbourhood have been taking in displaced children to give them warm showers at home on a daily basis.

In the school playground, an artist tried to leave a lasting mark to thank residents of the neighbourhood for their warm welcome to the southern villagers.

He wrote a magnificent Arabic calligraphy on the wall.

Even in southern Christian towns and villages which are perceived as less likely to be hit, homes, convents and schools have offered room for displaced people, mostly Shiites.

Israel launched an offensive on Lebanon after Hezbollah took prisoner two Israeli soldiers in a border raid on July 11 and said it would only free them in exchange for the release of prisoners at Israeli jails.

More than 380 people in Lebanon, the overwhelming majority are civilians, have been killed in random Israeli air strikes and bombardment that also left Lebanon hard-won infrastructure in ruins.

United in misfortune

Outside the school was a banner showing an old portrait of late president-elect Bashir Gemayel, once the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, shaking hands with his lieutenant Samir Geagea -- back when he was still wearing a fearful black beard and military fatigues.

The two men may be venerated by some Christians, but for the Shiite displaced families they are the ugly face of a militia responsible for a number of massacres during the 1975-1990 civil war which still scar the social fabric in Lebanon.

"It is a pity that only misfortune unites us," said Khorshid.

"This shows that when we the people are left to each other, we can live together in peace and harmony. It is only politics and leaders that create these rifts."

The sight is also a stark difference from events of last year, which saw Muslim-Christian tensions in the wake of the killing of emblematic ex-premier Rafiq Al-Hariri and the consequent assassinations of Christian politicians and figures.

"Last year, we were chanting nasty slogans against each other. Today, we are helping each other because we have a common enemy," said 17-year-old Hussein Ismail.

An elderly man explains the situation with an old Arab proverb: "Me and my brother against our cousin, and me and my cousin against the enemy."