Healing lags as Beirut rebuilds Residents ambivalent about reconstruction

October 10, 1995|By DOUG STRUCK | DOUG STRUCK,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- This city is gradually shedding its war clothes, sloughing off the tattered battle uniform of shell-pocked buildings and ruined streets.

It wants to erase the telltale ruins that became a worldwide symbol of senseless war, of a society drawn to self-destruction in a frenzy of neighbor killing neighbor.

Building blocks now are stacked between the piles of rubble. The shriek of artillery has given way to the rumble of cement mixers. Construction cranes knit a new Beirut skyline from one made ragged by 16 years of war.

"If you look at how the country was three years ago and now, you will find a big difference," said Rafiq al-Hariri, the billionaire builder appointed prime minister in 1992 to spearhead the reconstruction.

Telephone service will be reliable by the end of next year, he said. Roads are being rebuilt, water and sewer lines laid, the airport and ports reconstructed.

The public stock market reopened last month. Mr. Hariri says he has stabilized the country's currency and increased per-capita income, and has toured the world to drum up business to revive the ancient trading tradition of Lebanon.

A soccer stadium is going up on the outskirts of Beirut to serve as a venue for an Arab sports tournament next year, he notes. And the $50 million Casino du Liban will open next spring with hopes of again making Lebanon a playground for the rich.

Yet the people of Beirut are healing more slowly than their city.

Even as reconstruction reshapes Lebanon's capital, many Beirut residents speak with an unexpected ambivalence. They talk almost wistfully of the civil war that ended in 1991.

"You know, it's strange to say, but people are happier during the war," said Mohammed Salam, a Lebanese who saw the worst of fighting as a reporter for the Associated Press. "You are glad just to be alive. You love your families and your neighbors more. You don't care about the little things.

'Everyone feels worse'

"And actually, you have more money because there is nothing to spend it on. Now the bills are coming in. Everyone feels worse," said Mr. Salam, who now publishes a hunting magazine and runs an office for a Kuwaiti news agency.

No one wants to return to the killing, the Lebanese hasten to stress. From 1975 to 1991, what began as a fight between the Christians and the Palestinians dragged the country into a civil war including Lebanese Muslims and Druze, and led to Syrian occupation and Israeli invasion and more civil war.

Beirut was dissected by gunfire, vicious shelling that left strips of the city in ruins. No one is sure how many died: Estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000, with many more wounded and 750,000 who lost their homes.

Now firmly under Syrian control, Lebanon has embarked on a massive rebuilding that includes the world's largest urban public works project in this decade and ambitious private projects.

Much of it is the effort of Mr. Hariri. He has heard the complaints -- that the work is going too slowly, that public services still don't work, that big business, including his own construction company, is profiting at the expense of small landowners.

"The work hasn't gone as fast as I expected. But I'm not discouraged," Mr. Hariri said in an interview last month. But the delays, he noted, are due to the enduring political feuds in the country.

"The problem we have in this country is there are lots of politicians and very limited number of statesmen," he said. "The political situation played an important role in delaying. My

opponents do not want me to succeed."

His opponents include Nabbi Berri, the Shiite Muslim speaker of the parliament, who blames Mr. Hariri's building plans for creating new social rifts.

"It is indecent to talk of progress in the reconstruction program when the situation on the social front is deteriorating," Mr. Berri said in a speech recently.

The work is benefiting builders, but prices have risen sharply, while jobs and salaries have not kept pace, Mr. Berri said. Increases in the fuel tax have caused demonstrations, and worker unions are fighting with the government for pay increases. New luxury apartments await wealthy tenants while thousands of families remain homeless.

A study prepared for the United Nations this year said 82 percent of Lebanese families live on $600 a month, the upper poverty line for a family of five.

There is money in Beirut. The discos are full and trendy bars, and restaurants have waiting lists for reservations. Boutiques meet the demand for Paris fashions. Businessmen in Mercedes cars make deals on their satellite telephones.

But the speculative frenzy of buying and selling real estate and building skyscrapers is helping only the richest, critics say, and driving up prices for the rest. This financial squeeze is contributing to the nostalgia for the war.

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