Returning to a civil war nightmare

Lebanon sees 20 years of progress destroyed overnight by violence

Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - A week ago Beirut was humming: Chic restaurants flowed with champagne and caviar, Europeans thronged the beaches and mountain resorts, and famous singers planned to jet in for concerts in ancient ruins.

Almost overnight, it has all disappeared, and the country has been yanked back to the death and destruction of its civil war years.

Deep divisions among Lebanon's people, including over the power of Hezbollah guerrillas, have resurfaced too, leaving many here profoundly depressed.

"Everything we built in the past 20 years has been destroyed," said Pierre Ashkar, head of the Hotel Owners' Association. "No one had expected anything like that."

The violence began Wednesday when fighters of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, a group allied with Iran and Syria, snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid and killed eight others. Israel retaliated with waves of air and sea attacks - bombs and missiles - that destroyed Hezbollah positions and offices in south Lebanon, the eastern Bekaa Valley near Syria and Beirut's southern suburbs.

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Beirut's infrastructure - from its bridges to its international airport - has been badly damaged and nearly 200 people have been killed, most of them civilians.

Lebanese were stunned at how fast the clock was turned back. Many grew up amid the 1975-1990 civil war, when Beirut went from the "Paris of the Middle East" to a no man's land of bombed-out buildings, snipers and constant fear.

Most Lebanese had been intensely proud of their country's efforts to rebuild since then. Many pointed in particular to Beirut's rejuvenated downtown with its cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes and warm yellow-stoned buildings beside the sparkling Mediterranean.

Now they face despair again.

Days before the violence erupted, newspapers were full of predictions of a prosperous summer tourism season. But for the past six days, the headlines have told of fresh devastation.

Tourists from Europe and the Gulf - who just a week ago thronged the streets, Parisian boutiques and restaurants - are fleeing. Hotels that boasted almost full occupancy now are almost empty.

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The summer's two main festivals, set in the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek and the historic Beiteddine Palace near Beirut, have been indefinitely postponed. International celebrities such as Liza Minnelli, British rock band Deep Purple and Lebanese diva Fairouz were among those set to perform.

Israel has repeatedly bombed Baalbek, in the Bekaa valley.

"Then disaster fell," said Joseph Chemali, deputy head of the Baalbek Festival which was to mark its 50th anniversary this summer. Chemali said the staging of the Baalbek festival, which was halted during most of the civil war, was always a sign that things were going well in the country.

"But we've died a hundred deaths and risen a hundred times," he added. "If we die once more, we will rise again."

For a while, it felt like Beirut was rising.

In the downtown area, called Solidere by many after the company formed to oversee its reconstruction, the shells of charred buildings were renovated with their original stone restored. Fancy boutiques cropped up.

Couples sheltered under trees in landscaped gardens. Workers were building the country's largest department store, the million-square-foot Souks of Beirut.

Tourists stopped to admire ruins from the Iron and Stone ages as well as the Phoenician, Hellenistic, Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Mameluk and Ottoman eras that have been uncovered since reconstruction began in 1994.

Today, downtown is eerily silent although the sea still sparkles nearby. Fancy stores and restaurants are shuttered. Most Lebanese just hope the latest fighting will somehow continue to spare this heart of Beirut.

The Israelis have struck not so far away, at one point hitting a lighthouse on a posh seafront boulevard just a few hundred yards from the campus of the nearby American University of Beirut.

"It's a pity this has been done to a country with so much potential," said Ashkar, of the hotel association.

Rafiq Shaalan is one of the few who refuses to succumb to the prevalent mood of depression.

Everyday, he opens his souvenir shop in downtown Beirut that sells colorful scarves, fragrant soaps and tiny ceramic coffee cups, even though hardly anyone heads downtown these days.

"It's not about money," said Shaalan, 40. "It's about remaining steadfast."



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