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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

A Tough Homecoming for the Residents of South Beirut

One couple find their building still standing, but nearly everything in their apartment has been blown apart by the impact of nearby blasts.

August 15, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The china cabinet survived unscathed. Everything else in the modest two-bedroom apartment of Zuhair and Salwa Hamoud has been twisted and blown out.

The new window frames the 51-year-old Zuhair installed last year have been bent beyond recognition by the impact of nearby blasts. Glass, rubble and a mysterious tangle of aluminum littered their bedroom.

"Look at this," Zuhair said Monday, pointing to a door that had been shattered and splayed across a nearby wall. "Our building was never even hit. It's all from the air pressure."

Israeli warships pounded south Beirut until a few minutes before the 8 a.m. cease-fire agreement went into effect. Once the explosions stopped, first a trickle and then a flood of residents began returning to their crushed neighborhoods to check on their homes. They rummaged through the piles of rubble, mangled cars and shaken apartment blocks for personal belongings even as some buildings continued to smolder into the early afternoon.

The Hamouds fled their home to stay with relatives in downtown Beirut on July 14 amid Israeli warnings that their neighborhood, a stronghold of the Islamic militant movement Hezbollah, would be targeted. They were preparing a snack of cheese and fruit when panic struck. The Israeli bombs were getting nearer. The couple and their four children went to a family's house near the city center, taking a change of clothes and some toiletries. They expected to be back the next day.

A month of continuous bombings later, the baker and his wife returned without the kids to this once vital quarter of 12-story apartment buildings, joining in a somber procession of misery.

Like hundreds of others, they shuffled along a trail of crushed apartment blocks and twisted electrical and phone wires. A bombed highway overpass lay on the street. Hands clamped mouths as whiffs of rotting flesh and produce wafted through the air. School textbooks lay crumpled and charred. "The bee lives in a hive," said one page in English.

They lumbered over huge mounds of rubble, grasping reinforced steel girders as they pulled themselves up and over.

Along the way, teary-eyed young couples, some carrying duffel bags stuffed with a few salvaged belongings, gazed despondently at crushed heaps of building material that once sheltered them.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, pledged on television Monday night to help rebuild homes and provide shelter for the homeless.

But in addition to the hundreds of lives lost in the Israeli bombings of south Beirut, residents had to contend with other irreplaceable losses: photo albums, videotapes of weddings, and family heirlooms buried beneath tons of concrete.

"I lost an apartment and all the stuff in it," said Moawad Wissam, a 33-year-old computer technician who moved back to Lebanon from Canada a year ago and now finds himself unmoored. He and his fiancee were to be married in three weeks. Now, he said, who knows?

Haydar Haydar, 35, owner of a chain of four camping supply stores selling American-style combat boots and fashionable desert camouflage T-shirts, rummaged through one of his shops, mannequins tumbling out of the damaged storefront. Two of his establishments were destroyed in the 34-day bombing campaign.

"I used to order from an American supplier," he said, showing the catalog for Rothco, a U.S.-based vendor of military and police uniforms. "I never will again."

The Hamouds' third-floor flat is in one of the few buildings still standing in the area. The family moved here seven years ago, slowly building up a middle-class life.

Zuhair pointed out with a laugh that the elevator shaft had been warped. Front doors to the apartments along the stairwell had almost all been blown out, offering clear views of his neighbors' dust-covered living rooms.

Every window in the Hamouds' apartment had been shattered. Ornate ceiling carvings were shaken loose in successive bombings. Broken glass covered their bed. The refrigerator door had been twisted out of shape.

The cheese and fruit they had laid out more than a month ago emitted a gagging stench.

But the teacups, flatware and delicate glasses behind the glass doors of the kitchen cabinet offered a small measure of comfort to Salwa, who slapped her hand gently to her cheek as she entered each room and assessed the damage.

She stepped through a broken sliding-glass door, clearing away mangled aluminum rods, onto the balcony. She shuddered as she scanned the devastation.

The whole landscape of southern Beirut had been stripped bare.

Apartment blocks across the road where her neighbors might have hung their laundry had crumpled under the bombing. Smoke and soot continued to rise from buildings that once housed the children who played with her kids.

"I don't even recognize the neighborhood anymore," she said.

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