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Hezbollah rises from ruins of its Beirut home

Its political resurgence traces to the Israeli destruction of Dahiyeh, which it aims to remake.

December 27, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Mohammed Haidar watches yellow machines chew smashed kitchen appliances like hungry beasts, crumpling the stoves and refrigerators, compressing them into tight-packed wads. Neighbors in the bomb-wrecked streets are glad to scavenge the mangled guts of domesticity; they buy the balls of metal cheap.

"It's deformed and weak. People take it and remold it," Haidar says. He snorts, the smoke of his Marlboro hanging like vapor in his mouth. "They should recycle the whole city."

To stroll through the Dahiyeh, the predominantly Shiite Muslim slums of south Beirut, is to take a tour through the ruins of Hezbollah's past -- and prospects for its future. Nearly six months after Israeli airstrikes laid waste to these streets, teams of Hezbollah designers are drawing up grand plans for the area's rebirth.

This is more than terra sancta for the powerful Shiite political party and militia. In a real sense, the Dahiyeh and its people are Hezbollah: a district and a movement defined by each other.

Against this tumbledown backdrop, Haidar has lived out his tumultuous 18 years: His father, a Hezbollah official, was assassinated here when Haidar was a child. Haidar drove an ambulance through these streets during last summer's war with Israel, sleeping on sidewalks while explosions shook the earth. He lost the apartment where he lived with his mother and sister, and rented a new one with a cash handout from Hezbollah.

Thousands of stories like Haidar's, chronicles of displacement, hope and fighting, crisscross the streets of the Dahiyeh. It was in these slums that Hezbollah first began to use the deprivation of Lebanon's Shiites as an instrument of defiance, and to turn generations of neglect into political capital.

In spite of, and in part because of, the destruction of its de facto capital and southern heartland, Hezbollah emerged from the war with heavy political ambitions. No longer willing to remain largely independent of state power, Hezbollah called massive street demonstrations to demand a larger share in the government.

"The Dahiyeh is the history of the Shiites, the transformation from quietism to activism," says Ibrahim Moussawi, editor of Hezbollah's newspaper and a Dahiyeh native. "When you talk about the Dahiyeh, you talk about the grimmest face of Lebanon."

Home to war refugees

The Dahiyeh was still a swath of sleepy villages and fruit orchards when the creation of Israel sent droves of Palestinian refugees into makeshift refugee camps here. For decades after, the neighborhoods kept on growing. The population swelled in waves with every war as Shiites from southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in the east flocked to the city's edge to escape violence and economic ruin.

At the eve of last summer's war, nearly half a million people were packed into its crazy maze of apartment houses -- about an eighth of Lebanon's total population. They lived in perpetual neglect, many of the buildings still pockmarked from previous bursts of fighting.

The neighborhoods here are improvised, careless, as if the chaotic lives of war refugees had hardened into a tangle of concrete, dented cars and electrical wires. There have never been enough bridges, traffic circles or tunnels. The electricity would shudder to a stop for hours at a time. There was nowhere to park a car, no place for children to play, no fresh air to breathe.

"The people were left to their fate," Moussawi says. "They started to look after themselves."

In the heart of the Dahiyeh stands Hrat Hreik, a half-crushed neighborhood of shabby shops and apartment blocks that Hezbollah claimed as its self-administered governorate.

Hezbollah's top officials are believed to live and work in Hrat Hreik. Until bombs brought the walls down, the political headquarters were here, studded within apartment buildings plastered with icons of Iranian ayatollahs. Hezbollah's radio station, satellite television channel and newspaper operated from well-known offices here.

From Hrat Hreik, Hezbollah thrived and grew into a popular political party, winning the fierce loyalty of Shiites by building hospitals and schools, organizing social security programs for the elderly, caring for orphans and widows.

As the son of a Hezbollah "martyr," Haidar was raised on charity from Hezbollah and the party's main backer, Iran. He was 1 1/2 years old when his father was killed in a bombing attack; he believes Israel plotted the assassination, working through Lebanese proxies. He doesn't let himself speculate about the collaborators.

"I don't really want to know. I could guess about some parties," he says. "I don't seek revenge. If I knew, I'd seek revenge."

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