A faraway war brings trouble close to the heart

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 July, 2006, 12:00am

In the town of Marjayoun, in the far south of Lebanon now under siege, lies Hong Kong resident Joseph Kozhaya's heart.

Yet it is not the constant shelling or piling up of dead bodies that keeps the restaurateur from returning, only the lack of an open airport.

'We sit in Hong Kong depressed about what is happening there. You feel helpless,' he said. 'I want to go to help my people, to see that they are OK.'

Foolhardy? No, because the 45-year-old businessman knows only too well the fury and carnage raging in Lebanon. It stole his youth, 'what should have been the best years of my life'.

'War, we know war too well in Lebanon,' he said. 'If you have gone through this for 35 years, especially when you were young, you become used to it.'

Mr Kozhaya, owner of Assaf Cafe on Lyndhurst Terrace in Central, has been in Hong Kong for 15 years, a home which he loves and holds dear.

But it is his heart that aches now, for the little Catholic town where the population of 10,000 has been swollen to 50,000 by the Shi'ite Muslims taking refuge there.

Mr Kozhaya says the water and food ran out two days ago. The bridges have been bombed and the roads are closed, cutting them off from the rest of Lebanon and urgently required supplies of food and medicine.

'In Lebanon, you can't say that the people in the town are your neighbours because they are your family as well,' he says.

'I have uncles, aunts, grandparents and all in between who are down there.'

Mr Kozhaya's wife and two teenage daughters, 19 and 16, are British citizens and have managed to get to Cyprus, where they now face what is fast becoming another humanitarian crisis.

Despite the destruction, Mr Kozhaya does not want to be drawn on the events which have seen the country descend into turmoil.

At this time he would rather ask people to put aside their prejudices and pray for his country.

'I hope one day people will not mention 'Lebanon' in the same sentence as 'Muslim', 'Christian', 'Hezbollah' or 'terrorism',' Mr Kozhaya said.

'I hope they will be able to see a country with a rich, 7,000-year-old history, a capital they call the Paris of the Middle East, and a people who just want to get on with life.'