Car bomb vs. traffic fine: Peace comes with price

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 26, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

LEBANON — BEIRUT, Lebanon -- She tacked the first one she got on the bulletin board, and she is thinking of getting it framed, said the young woman.

It's a parking ticket.

"Can you believe it? In Beirut!" she exclaimed. She must be unnamed, lest her sensitive job in the government be jeopardized by this criminal summons -- still unpaid.

Like it or not, law and order is coming to the streets of Beirut. Last month, policemen reappeared in the city's major intersections, until now scenes of chaotic confrontation.

They are directing traffic. They are giving tickets. They are even having cars towed away for parking violations.

This in a city where just a few years ago the danger of double-parking was that the adjacent vehicle might be a car bomb.

Order in the streets was an early victim of Lebanon's 15 years of internecine warfare, a time when car bombs claimed a random toll in grief, and bands of militiamen careened through the streets, oblivious to smashing into others.

As the city slowly crumbled in a maelstrom of bullets and bombs, the policemen stayed in their station houses.

"You couldn't challenge the militiamen with their guns," said Col. Antoine Saade, a 31-year veteran of the national police force.

But with the end of the fighting two years ago and the disarmament of most of the militias, Colonel Saade is moving his policemen out to reclaim the streets.

It is a slow task. Typical was the standoff at a busy intersection in Beirut recently, when the white-gloved officer approached a parked driver and told him to move along.

"You can't stop here. It's forbidden," said the policeman.

The motorist, dumbfounded, just stared. "Forbidden!" hollered the policeman to the slack-jawed driver. The man behind the wheel seemed to hesitate, debating whether and why he should obey. "Forbidden!" shouted the policeman a third time, and the motorist moved slowly off.

"You have to change the mentality of the people. For 17 years, they have not been used to this," said Colonel Saade, now chief of internal security.

Before the civil war, say those who lived here, cosmopolitan Beirut wore European manners. One could get a ticket for jaywalking and be arrested for smoking in a cinema. People obeyed the laws.

Now there is not a traffic light in all Beirut. They were shot, bombed or stolen. There is electricity only half of each day, and so they would not work even if they were there.

Traffic lights would likely be ignored anyway. Beirut drivers have become accustomed to anarchy. Those who stayed here have become tough for survival. On the street there is no room for charity.

There are no lanes except those claimed by each car. Right-of-way is accorded to whoever gets there first, a contest of inches. Drivers enter busy intersections at full speed, honking as they approach to intimidate others. Courtesy is an alien concept.

Autos stop, turn, reverse or park, oblivious to traffic. Even by the discordant standards of the Middle East, driving in Beirut is a wild thrill.

The results are evident in the cars. Most are lumpy from contact (let alone the rusting bullet holes, still standard decor). Many cars limp along dripping parts as they go.

Colonel Saade says the people welcome the police effort to sort out the mess. He has boosted his force to 17,000 from 8,000 men two years ago. With a gift from Saudi Arabia, some now have radios and jeeps.

"After 17 years of the militias, the people want the police to be strong. They accept anything we do," he said.

Gradually, the effort is paying off. Motorists now usually wait at intersections when a policeman raises his hand. And some of the main streets are noticeably less clogged by the haphazard custom of parking wherever a driver stops.

Not that enforcement is strong-armed. The standard parking ticket is 3,000 Lebanese pounds-- about $1.50. The real penalty is in trying to pay it: Lines at the ticket office can take three or more hours. A towed car may be lost for several days before its owner can find it in the bumbling bureaucracy.

And so the return of law and order has its downside.

"Don't tell anybody," confided the woman with the ticket. "But when I got this my first thought was, 'Damn, maybe it was better to have war.' "

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