Beirut still reels from war's effects

LEBANON LIVING ON HOPE

November 22, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In shattered urban caves, shells of broke buildings where the victims of war huddle to share the food scavenged in the day and a fire built at night, Samya, the Muslim woman, brings her baby to Laures, the Christian.

Samya is thin, and stares at her world with flat, sullen eyes. She has no husband, no money and no food. Her child is hungry, and she has nothing to give.

Laures smiles at the child. She raises her sweater to offer the baby her breast.

This simple act of sustaining life must surely humble those who for 15 years found excuse in religion or politics to kill, who waged the long sectarian civil war that ripped this country apart.

Yugoslavia? No, this is Lebanon, the country that rediscovered Balkanization before the Balkans did. This is where the modern lesson was taught to those who cared to learn.

Two years after the guns have fallen silent, Lebanon still suffers from its wounds. Beirut, once the playground of the Middle East, is a sad shadow of itself, a tattered, ghostly city that still dons formal wear for dinner and dreams of a return to glory.

For now, the peace is holding. The militias have been mostly defanged. The country held its first election in 20 years -- a rigged, divisive affair, but an election. Some reconstruction has started.

And Lebanon has a new prime minister. Rafik Hariri is a billionaire businessman with Saudi Arabian money stuffed in his pockets. He is just the kind of high roller the Lebanese love, a man they think can deal Lebanon out of its misery -- or buy it out.

"People are looking forward. There's a new optimism," says former Prime Minister Selim Hoss.

But this hope has not reached Samya the Muslim or Laures the Christian. They are squatters in a building on the Green Line, the boundary of devastation separating Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut.

Nothing seems living in this area. Hundreds of darkened hulks of buildings are a monument to the energy of arms manufacture: The concrete walls are punctured by billions of bullets and millions of shells. Homeless people such as Samya and Laures move in the shadows, gray figures as though from the coming end of the world.

Samya named her daughter Dimua, which means "tears." Her husband disappeared when she was pregnant. Her house was destroyed in the fighting. She now occupies a bare concrete room in an abandoned building. She hung a discarded picture on the wall. It shows a beautiful, rosy-cheeked Victorian woman with red tresses to her waist, swathed in a frilly dress.

Samya, wan and grim, wears an Islamic headdress. Her life will improve, she says, "when God remembers me."

Beirut, too, struggles to see a future through the smoke of its past. From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon engaged in self-immolation. War began between Christians and Palestinians, and spread along broader Christian and Muslim lines in kaleidoscope alliances and rules enforced by Kalashnikov rifles.

It was not so much house-to-house fighting as piece-by-piece demolition. Syria sent troops in 1976; Israel in 1978 and again in 1982. Both stayed.

Lebanon's very name came to represent national fratricide. When the nation was finally spent, its war stopped in October 1990, the mantle of murderous tribalism passed to the Balkans.

From above, Beirut now seems a benign metropolis, surprisingly high-rise. But on the ground, the image dissolves into blemishes and scars. One sees the carcasses of buildings -- skeletons of pillars and walls, absent the flesh of interiors.

Dancing in the darkness

This is a surreal place where nothing adds up. Amid the dark and devastation, glittery nightclubs push $150 bottles of whiskey. A typical salary is $200 a month, but the streets are jammed with boutiques selling dresses for twice that much.

Incongruities numb the mind. Gruesome pictures of Bosnian corpses have been plastered by Muslim groups throughout the city. They share wall space with voluptuous models advertising racy lingerie. Giddy couples spill out of a disco, passing a bunker of sandbags and a slit that reveals the suspicious eyes of a soldier.

And Beirut longs for its past.

"We had the life: very free, very international. It was a cultural, artistic, medical and educational center," recalls Dr. Adnan Iskandar, vice president of the American University of Beirut. "Now it's a depressing city."

Once most major news organizations had offices here -- first, because it was a center of intelligence about the region and the burgeoning importance of oil, and then because its conflict acquired an importance in the Cold War.

The war dispatches that Farouk Nassar helped send from behind sandbags in the Associated Press office flashed over the wires. Now, he says, it's tough to sell a story about Lebanon.

"After the hostages were released, interest started to fade," says Mr. Nassar, who took over the AP office while the bureau chief, Terry Anderson, was held hostage for nearly seven years.

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