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Dream Is Over in Lebanon

Beirut rose from the wreckage of the civil war to become a fashionable city. As the bombs rain down again, residents are falling into despair.

July 16, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — After years of taking on debt, forgiving their neighbors and hiding the scars of civil war, the people of Lebanon are watching with dread as their carefully rebuilt country splinters around them.

The last four days of Israeli airstrikes have shattered bridges, bloodied children and wasted roads. But they also mark another cycle of destruction for this seaside city, forcing some to wonder whether their country is cursed to live in perpetual violence and others to gird defiantly for another round of death and destruction.

"We feel raped," intoned Camille Younis, a burly man with bags under his eyes and reddish hair giving way to gray. "We never, never, never expected anything like this."

It was Saturday afternoon, the city smothered in sticky heat. The deep rumbles of explosions from the south shook the floor under Younis' feet. His car rental agency was the only shop on a strip of newly rebuilt downtown real estate that had bothered to open its doors under Israeli bombardment. The place was deserted.

Younis, 50, sat glumly in his office, a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and an ashtray brimming with Gitanes butts sitting before him. He had invested all of his money in the business, he said. He borrowed money and invested that, too. When the fighting started, his livelihood began to melt away. Younis was disgusted with Israel and angry with Hezbollah.

"My God, we had a dream," he said, pointing out his window to the mosque and church that rose side by side across the street. "We had a dream of Lebanon, and I'm sorry it didn't work."

The torrent of airstrikes has cut down a national wish that has sometimes seemed on the verge of coming true: That the people of Lebanon, with its mountains and cedar forests and sparkling beaches, could have a peaceful, prosperous country.

"We are in shock. Nobody is ready to go through this war," said Nayla Mouawad, the minister of social affairs. Like most Lebanese, she has been scarred by her country's cycles of bloodshed.

Her husband, President Rene Mouawad, was assassinated just days after taking office in 1989. She was an outspoken critic of neighboring Syria's tampering in Lebanese affairs.

And now she is facing a fresh round of violence.

"People are depressed and more than depressed," she said. "They are desperate."

The history of this tiny seaside country is a tapestry of betrayal, assassination and patronage. Lebanon has been repeatedly divided. Animosity among its many religious sects and a shaky central government exposed it to foreign meddling.

The civil war that dragged on from the mid-1970s until 1990 split the capital in half and pitted Lebanese against one another amid intrusions by Americans, Iranians, Syrians and Israelis. Israel's presence didn't end until 2000, when it pulled its troops from southern Lebanon.

The years of fighting left a bleak inheritance: The nation was physically destroyed, nearly drained of citizens, deep in debt and known internationally as a haven for warlords and terrorists.

The war also left Lebanon under the absolute control of Damascus. Syria sent its soldiers to control the countryside, backed Hezbollah and exercised a puppeteer's control over the government in Beirut.

It took violence, too, to drive Syria out of Lebanon. When charismatic former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated last year, enraged Lebanese blamed Syria and thronged the streets in mass protests. Under heavy international pressure, Syria finally withdrew from Lebanon in the spring of 2005.

A weak and fractious government was left to sort out its considerable political differences, including the fate of Hezbollah. The movement kept its weapons and became a partner in the new government.

A raid into Israel by Hezbollah guerrillas provoked the massive attacks last week.

"We have paid a price for this homeland with our blood and our souls," a grim-faced Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told his country Saturday night. "We will rebuild what the enemy has destroyed, as we did in the past. Lebanon has bled before, and today it is bleeding anew."

Just a few months ago, Lebanon seemed to be rising from the wreckage of its past. The sun-splattered maze of shops and cafes, mosques and churches, plazas and pedestrian walkways in the heart of the capital had been rebuilt, limestone block by limestone block. For the first time in years, there was no war or occupation. Tourists came pouring in to explore the hillside city at the lip of the Mediterranean Sea.

When Beirut rose from the ashes, it did so with flair. Racing to outdo one another, Lebanese built gourmet restaurants, gleaming boutiques and pulsing nightclubs. The city became fashionable again, particularly among wealthy Arabs looking for a place to escape the oppressive summers of the Persian Gulf.

But Lebanon never decided what to do about Hezbollah.

When the explosions of Israeli airstrikes echoed off the hills of Beirut on Saturday afternoon, 18-year-old Nancy Abi Aad's cellphone rang. Her father's voice was urgent.

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