Across the fence
It was the last thing I expected and for a few seconds I stood there dumbfounded. I was climbing a small hill in the village of Dhayra in south Lebanon. Somebody had told me that I might be able to find some members of the South Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy militia until their withdrawal in May this year after 22 years of occupation. As a journalist, I thought this would make a great interview.
Instead, I came across dozens of people standing in front of a fence. They were tearfully calling out people's names. On the other side, others were doing the same. In between the two groups was a barbed- wire fence - all that now separates Lebanon from Israel.
And then it dawned on me: these people were Palestinian families torn apart 52 years ago when the state of Israel was created. And today they were seeing each other for the first time.
Palestinians on the Israeli side had made their way to the fence and asked Lebanese villagers to send a message to certain Palestinian families living in refugee camps in Lebanon. Somehow the message had spread and a busload of Palestinian refugees made their way south.
On both sides, men, women and children arched their necks trying to recognize each other.
'I am Itaf, the daughter of Rihan,' an elderly woman yelled from the Israeli side. 'Who are you? Do you know me?'
Immediately, screams rang out from the Lebanese side as cousins extended their hands in the air as if to reach her. Itaf and other Palestinians stepped over knee-high barbed wire and walked to the fence. Her hand reached through it to grasp the hands of her relatives on the Lebanese side. She had not seen them since 1948.
'How did this happen to us?' she cried out. 'Oh, how did this happen?'
Itaf was born in the Acre region in what was then known as Palestine. Her family fled to Lebanon in 1948 and contact with relatives ceased.
All around, sobs filled the air as relatives either recognized each other or met for the first time. Most were children when they fled. Only childhood memories remained of their friends and relatives. They persisted, calling out the names and trying to identify who was standing in front of them.
'We were neighbours, don't you remember?' one woman shouted from Lebanon. 'Tell me, what happened to your uncle and your aunt?'
Suddenly I noticed an elderly woman next to me silently shedding tears. She turned to me and grasped my hand. Her name, she said, was Myriam Moussa.
'I was only 13 when the Israelis made me go to Lebanon to join my Lebanese fiancé,' she said. 'I didn't want to go. I went alone and never saw my parents, brothers or sisters again.'
I gathered she was around 65 but she looked more like 80. The last time she saw her siblings, they were just small children, some even toddlers.
'Look over there,' she said still holding on to my hand. 'These are my sisters, and that man over there is my brother, Ahmad.'
From across the fence, an elderly man with white hair stared back. He seemed in a daze. He must have been around ten when his sister was forced to leave.
Nearby, their children held hands through the prickly barbed-wire fence. 'You're my first cousin,' said Yusra, holding on to a man's hand on the Israeli side. Both started crying. Neither one seemed to be able to let go.
Meanwhile, dozens of voices exclaimed joyfully when identities were established. Youngsters kissed the hands of the elderly extended through the fence.
Not knowing what to give her relative on the Lebanese side, one woman handed over a Pepsi can with Hebrew lettering. Another man threw over a keffieh, the traditional male headcovering, requesting that it be given to his brother. One family exchanged photographs.
The day ended all too soon. As I helped Myriam Moussa down the hill, her tears flowed again. 'What if they don't let me see my brother and sisters again?' she said.
I could only hope that perhaps, just perhaps, two warring nations might see beyond their hatred to allow wrinkled and youthful hands to touch through a prickly barbed wire.
It was not to be: a week later Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak prohibited Palestinians on the Israeli side from approaching the fence. Those on the Lebanese side came and waited for hours.
I wondered if Myriam Moussa was among those who finally turned away and walked slowly back down the hill.
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