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Prisoner's relatives gear up for big day

A deal between militants and Israel will see the release of four Lebanese in exchange for two Israeli soldiers.

YATER, SOUTH LEBANON // With repair work to bomb-damaged homes and smashed infrastructure still unfinished, the village of Yater in south Lebanon continues to live with the grim repercussions of the 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel. But for the Kourani family in Yater, the second anniversary of the start of the war, which falls tomorrow, will be marked by a moment of happiness with the expected return home of Maher Kourani, 32, a veteran Hizbollah fighter. Maher was captured in the closing days of the conflict and will be released in the coming days as part of a much anticipated prisoner exchange with Israel.

"I am very happy that he will be returning, of course, and that life will return to normal," said Izzat Kourani, 25, Maher's wife. "The problem was that he was captured and held prisoner by the worst enemy. If he had been martyred in the war, it would have been much easier for him." She wears a full-length black chador and sat in a sitting room redolent with Hizbollah motifs. On one wall were pictures of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, and Imad Mughniyah, Hizbollah's military chief who was assassinated in February in Damascus. On another wall is a poster of Maher. Several chairs are draped with yellow silk scarves emblazoned with Hizbollah's emblem. In a corner is a small framed photograph of Maher standing beside Nasrallah.

Izzat last saw her husband three days before the war erupted on July 12 2006, when Hizbollah fighters dashed across the border and captured two Israeli soldiers near the southern Lebanese village of Aitta Shaab, 5km south of Yater. "When he knew that there was going to be an aggression by Israel against Lebanon, he automatically went out to defend his country," said Hassan Kourani, 54, Maher's father. The family had no news of Maher throughout the war and only learnt of his fate afterwards on television. Maher had been fighting near the village of Shemaa, 11km west of Yater, when he was captured by Israeli troops.

"He fought for 29 days and was captured four days before the end of the war," Hassan said. "I wished that he had been martyred, not captured. We are investing in the blood of martyrs. It gives us more strength. In any event, I am proud of my son. He defended our dignity and the sovereignty of his country." Yater lies tucked among stony hills and is surrounded by small fields of golden wheat and dusty olive groves. It overlooks a deep wadi system that slashes through the rolling limestone hills of Lebanon's southern border district.

The village has a long association with resistance against Israel, beginning in the late 1960s, when some of Yater's youths joined Palestinian groups then establishing themselves in south Lebanon. A later generation joined the Amal Movement and fought Israeli occupation troops in the early 1980s. By the end of that decade, Hizbollah had arrived in the south and was winning new recruits in such villages as Yater, which now found itself on the edge of Israel's occupied border strip.

Among those new recruits was Maher, the eldest of six brothers, who first took up arms in 1992 when Israeli troops launched an incursion lasting several days north of their zone into Yater and the neighbouring village of Kafra. He fought until Israel's troop withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 and then continued his military activities with Hizbollah along the border. Maher, and two other Hizbollah fighters also captured in the war, are incarcerated in Ashmoret prison in Netanya. Izzat said that she had received only four letters from her husband over the past two years. The letters are delivered by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which has access to the prisoners.

"He is suffering but he is holding his head up," she said. Hassan said that the family had sent money in letters via the ICRC, but claimed that the Israeli warders had stolen the cash. The prisoner swap deal reached between Hizbollah and Israel will see Maher, his two Hizbollah comrades and two other Lebanese exchanged for the two Israeli soldiers captured on July 12 2006. The date of the swap has yet to be announced although it is expected in the next week. Izzat said she hoped that the Lebanese detainees would be flown to Beirut airport, rather than released at the Ras Naqoura border crossing.

"I want the president and the government to greet Maher and the others at the airport and give them the respect they deserve," she said. Despite his ordeal in an Israeli jail, the family is confident that Maher will return to Hizbollah's military ranks as soon as he can. @Email:nblanford@thenational.ae

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