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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

A Refuge of Relative Calm Outside Beirut

A former Christian militia stronghold in the mountains becomes a haven for Lebanese of all stripes fleeing violence in the south.

July 23, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

BIKFAYYA, Lebanon — In this mountain village, once a stronghold for Christian militiamen who fought in Lebanon's bitter civil war, the woman strolling past fruit stands and cafes Saturday looked jarringly out of place.

She was a Shiite Muslim, wearing a light-blue head scarf. In years gone by, she would not have dared to enter Bikfayya, where the afternoon air is cool as Beirut swelters about 10 miles below.

But the Israeli airstrikes on southern Lebanon have made for a new order, at least for now. In this tiny nation so used to war, the lines of what is safe and what is not are being redrawn.

The appearance of the hijab in a Christian enclave only added to the already surreal feel of the Lebanese capital and the hills that embrace it.

The southern part of Beirut, no more than a long walk down the coast toward the airport, is a wasteland of shattered glass and twisted metal. Yet in other areas, mom-and-pop shops and international fast-food outlets were open for business Saturday. And as the road climbed higher into the hills above the city, there was virtually no hint that anything was amiss below.

Much of this is a matter of history and geography. The area to the east and north, as well as many of the towns in the mountains, are populated by the Christians of Lebanon.

West Beirut is an old part of the city where both Christians and Muslims live. But the south is largely poor, and the slums have long been a place that breeds discontent. The area has been an Israeli target from the days when the Palestine Liberation Organization made its headquarters there. Now it is the stronghold for Hezbollah.

So now the Lebanese live in a much tighter space where the bombs have not yet fallen. And with Israel insisting that a full-scale invasion is not in the offing, they have begun to adjust to their new territory, mindful that it could change at any moment.

Swaths of the southern suburbs are in ruins after 11 days of Israeli attacks. The main road from the south is bombed out and impassable. The main road to Damascus is knocked out. Hotels have emptied. Electric power comes and goes.

But the main shopping street of Hamra in west Beirut was jammed with cars Saturday morning. Stores were open, at least for a few hours -- even clothing shops that sold no clothes.

"Now is not the time to be buying clothes. Now is the time to buy food," said Fouad Naim, manager of the Antonio Baldan men's store. "But some who have been wearing the same thing for the last 10 days have come to get something new. You can smell them when they come in."

The newly built center of the city, with its fashionable shops and banking center, was eerily empty, save for a smattering of people in what few cafes were open. The tourists who made it one of the busiest parts of the city have long since gone, either by sea or overland to Syria or Jordan.

But on the main highway going north up the coast, more stores and restaurants were open, including fast-food standbys such as Hardee's, KFC, Subway and Burger King.

On Saturday afternoon, the road was jammed with cars as it passed the port and headed north, past modern shopping malls and other developments that are a part of the rebuilt Beirut. A turnoff to the right leads to the mountains above. Virtually all of this territory is home to the Christians of Lebanon, who allied themselves with the Israelis during the invasion of the country in 1982.

In Bikfayya, the roads were more crowded than usual, because this is one of the routes to the Syrian border now that the main highway has been knocked out by Israeli jets.

Even with that, the scene was almost pastoral, with a neat town square surrounded by small, well-kept shops. At her fruit and vegetable stand, Lena Bochebel said that the trauma of the city below was a world away.

"Here there is no war, and all people are happy because we all get along," she said. "We're taking care of people. We are all Lebanese people."

She pointed to the street leading off to the right, where the high school was perched on a hill overlooking the valley below. She said the school, the church and the local hotels were filled, many with people who had fled from the south.

At the school, one of those who had taken shelter was Mohammed Salwi, from the now-devastated southern suburbs. Salwi said his family had endured the bombing for three days before finally deciding to leave.

"The bombs were hitting so close we could feel them shake," he said. "The children were crying, and we finally had to leave."

But the problem was finding a place to stay. His family, along with his sister's, traveled north in two cars into the mountains. But so did thousands of others, and they could find no place to stay. At one point, they were sleeping 16 to a tiny room in a makeshift shelter.

"So we went back home," he said. "But then it was just too bad. So yesterday we came back up the mountains and found this place to stay."

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