'We Are Not Refugees'

Emil Manoud was tending his fruit trees on a warm spring day when his wife, Lara, came running. (The family's names have been changed to protect relatives who remain in Lebanon.) Tears were streaming down her face. "The Hizbullah are coming!" she cried. Like most of their neighbors in south Lebanon, the Manouds had lived in dread of the day when the Iranian-backed Shiite militia would take unchallenged control of the land north of the Israeli border. Last week that fear came true. The people of Marjeyon, the largely Christian town where the Manouds had spent their whole lives, began fleeing their homes. The local store soon sold out of suitcases.

The Manouds' teenage daughter, Dina, stuffed a few prized possessions into a knapsack. Lara told her to pack only the bare necessities. The family would be coming home again any day, the mother promised. Dina, a senior in high school, knew better.

The Manouds may never return. They are among roughly 4,000 Lebanese who abandoned the land of their birth last week. Israel's messy withdrawal from south Lebanon gave them little choice. Most of the men were members of the South Lebanon Army, the Christian-led militia that was Israel's ally against Hizbullah. The SLA troops and their families would surely have become targets for revenge if they had dared to stay. So when Israel pulled out, they quickly joined the exodus, barely eluding the advancing guerrillas. Once an integral component of Israel's frontline defenses, they must now adjust to their new status as the country's latest refugee problem. They struggle to keep their dignity. "We are not refugees," insists a former SLA fighter. "We are not Palestinians."

Many Lebanese families have ended up stranded on opposite sides of the fence. A lot of villagers stayed behind in south Lebanon, too old or ill, or just plain unwilling to leave. At least a few had the bad luck to be away from home when Israel locked them inside its borders. One 50-year-old Lebanese worker was washing dishes in a Tel Aviv hotel when he heard on the radio that Israel was pulling out of south Lebanon. He rushed to the border, desperate to get home to his wife and three daughters. Unshaven and disheveled, he begged every Israeli soldier he encountered to let him cross into Lebanon. He was too late. The border was sealed--as were his hopes of seeing his family again soon.

The Manouds' new home is a tiny dorm room at an Israeli youth hostel, not far from the border. One of Lara's first requests was for a television to be installed in the youth hostel's community room. But when she turned it on, there was a news broadcast with footage of Hizbullah soldiers looting and burning the abandoned homes of SLA members. "That could be my house," she said, and she switched the set off, too heartsick to watch more.

Emil tries to stay upbeat. "We've been treated well here," he says. "We've been given everything we need." Like Emil, other newcomers seem genuinely grateful for the welcome Israel has given them. They believe the Israeli government's assurances that they'll be allowed to stay and gain permanent residency status within a year.

And most Israelis can only sympathize with their guests' plight. After all, their own country came into existence at least partly as a haven for Jewish refugees. They want to make their guests as comfortable as possible. Emil's hosts have already given him a new wardrobe of donated apparel to replace the clothes he left behind when his family fled. He wears a T shirt emblazoned BROOKLYN FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER. The youth hostel, with its bright red-tiled dwellings and well-groomed lawns, is no jail. But it's not much of a home, either. And Emil's fruit trees are a world away.