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A War-Weary Couple Stays Put, Awaiting What's Next

Wassim and Rima Khader remember too many similar moments in Beirut's history.

July 22, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The old stone house has an empty feel to it. Wassim and Rima Khader are alone there.

Although their children are no longer small, they have sent them to the safety of the mountains. But they decided to stay behind, waiting for what will happen next.

They pass their days, as so many Lebanese do, listening for any snippet of information that can provide some insight into what the future holds. They ponder these questions constantly: Will the Israelis enter the city as they did in 1982? Will all those years of rebuilding turn out to be futile?

After so much conflict, the Khaders are palpably tired of what Wassim describes as a "culture of violence" over which they have no control.

The latest manifestation of it is Hezbollah, which is fighting the Israelis in the south. Although the battle is far from the Wassims' comfortable west Beirut home, Israel already has bombed the city and no one knows what might happen.

So the couple stay put, in a house with high ceilings and portraits of ancestors. The family has lived in the house since 1926, when Wassim's great-grandfather built it to escape the noise of the city. Now it is in the center of Beirut, a tasteful monument to a more gracious time, surrounded by tall apartment buildings and a gleaming hospital down the street.

The family is one of professionals -- doctors and bankers educated here and abroad. Wassim is a banker, as was Rima before she retired last year.

They have a life that by Beirut standards is to be envied. But Wassim shakes his head at what Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East have become. He is careful not to talk politics; he says it wouldn't do any good. Rima says one of the distressing things about the current conflict is that the Lebanese government is too weak to rein in Hezbollah.

In this new crisis, nothing about Lebanon looks appealing. These moments have happened too often in Wassim's 49 years. After all they have endured, they say, the latest conflict could be the final straw. At least that is their thinking in these dark days

"My target now is to sell the house and send the children out of the country," Wassim said.

It rankles him that each crisis appears to involve an attempt by someone to change his life in some way.

"The whole world is free to do what it wants, but don't impose your culture on my culture," he said. "You cannot tell what is good or bad for me, because you do not know me."

In the late morning, Rima was making coffee in the kitchen. She is a loquacious woman, equally comfortable talking about her children as the state of the country.

Her older son, Mateo, an opera singer in Paris, had arrived home on vacation July 12, the day before the Israelis bombed Beirut's airport, putting it out of commission. On that day, Rima said, she had a premonition that something was wrong, and she began making calls to see if anything was happening at the airport. It turned out she was one day early.

Her younger son, Ramzi, is a sophomore at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and plans to study hotel management. Daughter Riwa will be a junior in high school this fall.

All of them have gone to the mountains, to a village where Rima found a house to rent for the duration of the Israeli-Hezbollah confrontation.

But for her and Wassim, staying home was both a practical decision and a reflection of how they want to live their lives. Empty houses tend to be occupied by refugees. And the pair simply don't feel like running away.

"If I want to die, I will die here," Rima said. "I am here and I will stay here. I always sleep on the left side of the bed and I will never change. It's the same with staying in my house."

It is exasperating to look back and see so many similar incidents over the years, she said. "We have been used to this since I was 15."

The latest armed faction in Lebanon is Hezbollah, which has become a law unto itself in the southern part of the country.

"Even the army does not dare to go there," Rima said. "It comes from the absence of the state."

For her, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 was one of the benchmarks of Lebanon's recent history.

"He was a great man," she said. "I believe that if Hariri were here, none of this would be happening. He had the ability and the power to speak to Hezbollah. He had the ability of dealing with all these people with art, wisdom and power. He was the mediator between all. That's why he was killed."

Later Friday, she called Mateo, who said restaurants were open in the mountain villages, and there was no fear of Israeli bombs or shells. He said it was better than being in Beirut, where people stayed close to home, glued to the television.

He said he had the chance to leave Lebanon on a Greek ship because he holds a passport from that country as well, but he chose not to.

"I don't want to go to Paris with my family all here," he said over the phone. "We'll give it a few weeks and see what happens."

Later in the afternoon, Wassim was home from the office, where he had been fretting over the country's bond rating on the world market.

"We are very down right now," he said. "You can't manage something that you can't control."

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