Grim reality of war grips Lebanese border towns near front line

From the constant buzzing of drones to shelling, life is dire but residents remain determined to stay in their homes

Merhej Shamaa, deputy mayor of Deir Mimas, says he will remain in his village near the front line for as long as possible. Matthew Kynaston / The National
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It's late morning in Deir Mimas, a traditional town in southern Lebanon. Only 3km from the Israeli border, Merhej Shamma, 66, the deputy mayor of the town, is chatting with his neighbours.

They're enjoying a typical Lebanese breakfast of savoury saj, a flatbread topped with za'atar, cheese, or meat, served with cucumbers and tomatoes.

It might seem like any other morning in this charming village nestled among olive fields, if not for the loud buzzing of drones overhead.

“We're used to it. Now, if I don't hear it, or the sound of shelling, I think something must be wrong,” he says with a smile.

“Say 'hi' to the drone, it's taking pictures,” he adds, looking up at the sky .

Israeli reconnaissance drones are called “Em Kamel”, a nickname that compares the spy drone to a noisy neighbour in Lebanon, and have been flying at low altitude over southern Lebanon since border clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah began on October 8.

Israeli forces and the militant group have exchanged almost daily fire since then.

Deir Mimas, a Christian town, is only a few kilometres from the active fighting. It has been spared from the war so far but shelling has hit near by.

For those who chose to hold on to their homes, approximately half of this small village of 500 people, humour conceals a dire situation.

“These drones remind you that you can die at any moment,” Mr Shamma says.

Jano Houran, 57, one of Mr Shamma’s neighbours, says: “We may be laughing now but when the shelling gets too close, it's terrifying. There's no real shelter in the village. We used to hide downstairs but let's be honest – if a missile hits your house, it doesn't matter where you are. You're gone.”

The village is quiet but churches are still holding services on Sunday. Most of the shops are closed. Those that remain open are struggling to get hold of stock.

“I can offer only half of the [usual] products because some companies refuse to deliver for security reasons,” says shop owner Jamile Moussa, 66.

Despite the hardships, residents who spoke to The National say they want to stay here as long as possible.

“I grew up right here on these streets,” says Mr Shamma, as he strolls among the traditional stone houses. “I used to run through these alleys and sit on these benches. It's the love for the village that compels us to stay.”

'Where would I go?'

Some say they have no other options. “Where would I go?” wonders Ramona Al Hajj, a 30-year-old resident staying in Deir Mimas with her husband and their one-year-old daughter, one of only four children left in the village.

Lebanon has been grappling with a steep economic crisis since 2019, marked by soaring inflation, a sharp devaluation of the local currency and a public sector in ruins, leaving even many Lebanese middle-class struggling to make ends meet.

Ms Al Hajj works for the municipality but says she has not been paid for months. “Rent is expensive in Beirut, I don't have this kind of money," she says.

Residents also stress they cannot leave their house behind without surveillance.

Sharli Khoury, a policeman from Deir Mimas, says his wife and child moved to a town further from the border. “But I'm staying to keep watch over the village in case people try to steal,” he says.

He is part of a municipality patrol comprising 15 men who conduct nightly tours to ensure the town's security.

This is not the first time Deir Mimas has experienced instability, much like the entire southern part of Lebanon, which has been marred by decades of conflict and Israeli occupation.

In 2006, during the last war between Hezbollah and Israel, the village was evacuated after residents were trapped for nearly a month, surrounded by shelling. Residents remember that Israel targeted the convoy of civilians on the road, killing one villager.

“If it gets like it did in 2006, of course we will leave but for now I'm staying,” the police officer says.

As Israeli strikes venture deeper and deeper into Lebanese territory and fears of a broader conflict grow, residents in Deir Mimas are faced with bleak prospects.

“I don't know what is going to happen. Inshallah, the war stops. There will be no safety anywhere in Lebanon anyway,” Ms Al Hajj says.

Grim perspectives

As the war drags on, living conditions continue to deteriorate in border villages. Many people are left without jobs, with farmers being particularly hard-hit in a region heavily reliant on agriculture.

“Look there: I haven't been able to access my land since October, it's too dangerous,” says Sobhi Haddad, pointing at an olive field a few metres below with a dismayed look, while he picks oranges in the garden next to his house. “I used to sell those to the neighbouring villages but there is no one left to buy them.”

Residents say the village has been surviving thanks to the generosity of charity and Lebanese living abroad.

“It's a compounded crisis,” says Joseph Salameh, Mayor of Qlayaa, another Christian town near Deir Mimas. He says the state is not helping despite huge needs for everything, from medicine to education.

Schools in the south have been closed, with classes moved online. Throughout our conversation, the internet was barely working in the village.

NGOs have been conducting weekly distributions of aid, medicine and food since the war started.

But it is not enough. “Farmers have lost two years of harvest because they have not been able to plant for the next season,” Mr Salameh adds.

The situation has made farmers angry.

Dieb Rizk has not been able to access his land in the plain of Marjayoun for months. The last straw came last week when he went to check on his crops, only to realise that thousands of dollars worth of equipment had been stolen. Other farmers have had their entire crops stolen.

“We don't have to live like this,” he says. "Of course, I think of leaving but I have nowhere else to go."

Updated: March 03, 2024, 9:12 PM