Scores of Palestinian refugees rushed to feast their eyes for the first time ever on "our Palestine", as they call it, stretching beyond the barbed wire on Lebanon's border with Israel.
They came from all the refugee camps around Lebanon, where they have been living in miserable conditions since 1948, to this tiny village a few miles away from the Mediterranean coast.
Men, women and children climbed up a hilltop covered with blue thistle and Spanish yellow broom, emanating sweet smells into the air, to reach the barbed wire Sunday.
On the other side, a few miles away, stood their cousins, aunts, uncles and even strangers who seemed so close to their hearts ... Arab Israelis, or, more exactly, Palestinians who had remained in their lands after Israel occupied Palestine in 1948.
Between them, Israeli soldiers patrolled the area, with assault rifles on their shoulders.
The soldiers easily switch from Arabic to address Palestinians in Lebanon to Hebrew to tell those on the Israeli side not to approach the fence as they try to shake hands, clumsily grasp an arm, exchange phone numbers or offer tissues to relatives wanting to wipe sweat from their brows.
"I came to smell the perfume of Palestine. It smells so nice. I am here but my heart is on the other side," said Mahmoud Abu Shebba, who was born and still lives in the refugee camp of Rashidiyeh, near the port city of Tyre.
Abu Shebba's parents were originally from Safad, in northern Israel.
"Since Wednesday, it is the third time that I come here. I can't get enough of it," he said, although the scenery on both sides is nearly identical.
Actually, nobody knows why they all chose to come to this particular border village, and not any other place along the border.
Ahmad Rabah, 70, proudly wears the traditional Keffiyeh checkered headscarf, but hides his tears behind a tree.
For the first time in 50 years, he saw his brother who had called him Saturday to fix a date and a location for them to finally meet.
His wife, carrying the key of the home they were forced to leave behind decades ago in Palestine, asks about relatives still there before recalling her house near Acca.
Their 26-year-old nephew, who was born in the Ain al-Helweh refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern coastal city of Sidon, wears a medallion representing the map of Palestine.
"I am very happy. I finally saw my uncle whom I had long heard of," he said.
The Palestinian refugees are ecstatic about the "liberation of Lebanon" from the Israeli occupation Wednesday because they could not previously approach the borders to see the land they were forced to leave half a century ago.
As long as the Israelis or their allied South Lebanon Army militia controlled the southern region, it was out of question for them to reach the border.
On one side, three women were chatting, laughing and crying. Their physical resemblance was striking.
The one standing on the other side was introducing her husband, a Palestinian from Israel, to her mother and her sister on the Lebanese side.
"I married him 25 years ago and I never had the occasion to introduce him to them," she said.
If most are happy, Tarek Abd, 28, is rather sad.
"It is terrible to live in a country like a refugee, without real rights, and to be here, separated from one's country by this little piece of iron which we can't cross over," said Abd.
Khawla Maqsud, 30, can't stop crying. She came from the Burj al-Shamali camp near Tyre to discover the country that she had long heard of.
She remains ecstatic, vowing that the Palestinians will do the same as the Lebanese and would surely return to Palestine.
But then, she starts crying again and throws a stone on the other side ... at nobody, just in a painful sign of helplessness -- DOUHAIRA, Lebanon (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)